Working with uncertainty

 

So, this is my very first blog.  Perhaps I don’t make it as an early-adopter but here I am…eventually.  I feel wary, curious, a bit unsettled, concerned about exposure whilst at the same time keen to engage.

Given my wobbly-legged foray into the blogosphere,  I thought I would kick off with the value of uncertainty and not-knowing as leadership attributes.  I don’t want to be an advocate for clueless dithering – but I do wonder if leaders, in their need to be seen as decisive and sure-footed, sometimes miss a trick.

No human being is ever totally sure, certain of themselves and others, at all times.  Those that claim otherwise are somewhere between delusional, dishonest and anxious – perhaps a heady mix of the above.  My hunch is that the very best leaders know when and how to engage with uncertainty so that it works to their advantage and to the advantage of others.

Part of a leader’s role is to enable their talented people to flourish and play their part in delivering whatever the organisation is there to do.  If a leader always knows best how can those around them feel that they are contributing? Recent research from Accenture (http://talentmgt.com/articles/view/even-highly-engaged-workers-are-a-flight-risk/3) reinforced what we already know about talent – that money isn’t enough to keep them interested.  If your best people don’t feel as if they are making a difference and influencing the environment they are working in then they’ll walk.   A leader who seems unfailingly certain can suck the oxygen from those around them, stifling creativity and innovation along the way.  In contrast a leader who has the gumption to ask a question rather than provide an answer, or even more boldly say “I’m not sure on this – what do you think?” may well be giving  their talented people space to perform.  This need not be abdication of responsibility.  A leader still needs to know when it’s their call to make but if they sit with uncertainty a smidgen longer then the decision may well end up being better informed.

As a leader you simply cannot know everything – and trying to do so is a sure way to drive your team up the wall and yourself to an early grave.  You are paying others to be experts, so it does seem that there is a real knack in knowing when to get the heck out of their way.  By accepting your uncertainty and not-knowingness you can avoid getting sucked into operational or technical detail – giving yourself the headspace to focus on what you are actually being paid to do.

I also believe that there is an umbilical link between tolerating uncertainty and being able to demonstrate resilience.  A leader who is able to role model the strength not to jump into a quick but ill-informed decision, is showing their followers that they too might be able to handle the anxiety stirred up by uncertainty.  They are demonstrating that uncertainty is survivable even if it’s uncomfortable and it may even pay dividends in the form of a more clued up choice or a side-stepped car crash.  The rider to all of this is knowing when being uncertain is a bad idea.  If there’s a fire – put it out and get on with it sharpish.

As a final thought – the defining characteristic of this market and economy is unpredictability.  The leader who can’t handle uncertainty is eventually going to get themselves and their organisation into trouble.

About jobostock

Hi, I’m Jo Bostock, founder of Pause Consultancy. I got into this line of work because I hate wasted talent. I find it incredibly rewarding to work alongside leaders who are shaping their careers and workplaces for the better. Before setting up Pause in 2004, I was Head of Learning and Development for the National Theatre having previously worked for the Prince’s Trust. I live with my partner Tammy who runs a martial arts and meditation school…she’s calmly lethal. I am a rotten cook, a decent squash player and an enthusiastic godmother .

2 Responses to Working with uncertainty

  1. Andy October 22, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Firstly, congratulations on your first blog post! Although not an “early adopter”, you’re still ahead of the curve – especially when it comes to consultancy!

    With regards to not knowing as a leader, I worked at a FTSE 10 company for just over 5 years and saw this attribute often in leaders.

    Although leaders don’t know everything about the decisions they are making, what they have done is become very competent at assessing risks and deciding if that risk is too much and then (as you have said above) butting their trust in their team, who are true experts.

    Anyway, nice entry into the blogosphere and looking forward to reading more 🙂

    Andy

    • jobostock October 28, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      Hi Andy – thanks for the comment. Particularly like the way you make the link between tolerating uncertainty and being competent at assessing risk. Appreciate the encouragement and will now get plotting the next blog post!

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