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Working with uncertainty

Abraham Lincoln once famously said “the best way to predict the future is to create it”, and that feels like good advice for HR leaders today. In this era of “never normal”, the world needs HR professionals to roll up their sleeves, take a deep breath and start the hard work of figuring out complex topics like AI, skills and flexibility.

But for many HR professionals, the degree of uncertainty that our present reality has created is deeply uncomfortable. We are used to moving with confidence towards a known destination, and now we are being challenged to feel our way through some very complex terrain.

In one of my Work In Motion Accelerators, I’m working with L+D leaders who are figuring out how to approach the complex world of skills-first. In this organizational model, the primary currency of work is skills, not jobs, so it represents a major departure from organizational life as we know it.

How do we get from here to there?

This is a question which is top of mind for my Accelerator members and it gives rise to a multitude of other questions, like where do I start, what vendors can help me, how do I bring the organization on this journey and what is my actual role in the skills strategy when it cuts across so many functions?

It’s easy to get stuck … to read another white paper .. to tread water awaiting direction … awaiting certainty.

Why are we getting stuck?

We’re generally very good at working towards a known destination. We may not know the exact route we’ll take, but we know where we are headed.

On the other hand, when it comes to a “future of work” initiative, we don’t truly know the destination. Most of us have never worked in a skills-first environment, after all. Prior to Covid, most of us hadn’t worked in a fully remote environment, and would have struggled to accurately predict how it would be.

We have very low tolerance for uncertainty and neuroscience explains why. Our brains love predictability and a sense of being in control. Uncertainty is perceived as a threat, which triggers the flight-fright-freeze response and floods our bodies with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This makes us unhappy and unproductive 😔

So what can we do about it?

I wouldn't dream of asking you to embrace uncertainty because that's a tall order. But I wonder if we could learn to respect and appreciate it as a factor in unlocking our creativity and agility as leaders.

Here are two strategies for making ourselves more capable in the face of uncertainty that you may find helpful.

1. Reframing uncertainty as possibility

The more we view uncertainty as something dangerous or undesirable, the more we trigger the threat response and the less productive we are. Instead, we can try to reframe uncertainty as a positive concept and a source of creativity.

I like to reframe uncertainty as possibility … think about the following reframes:

  • We are living in the era of uncertainty … we are living in the era of possibility.

  • With so much uncertainty, we need to … with so much possibility, we can …

  • There is uncertainty about the future of the team … there are multiple possibilities for the future of the team.

It feels different. Being uncertain can be viewed as a gift that opens us to new possibilities. It piques our curiosity and increases our appetite for knowledge. We listen carefully to others' perspectives. We pay attention and are alert.

Being uncertain is spacious and inclusive. Nothing is right, or wrong … everything is still on the table.

From this open vantage point, we are less likely to seek out a singular right answer and more inclined to experiment knowing that some experiments will work, and others won’t. Failure is not to be feared, rather expected. Afterall, many great inventions were failed attempts at something else like the iconic Post-It Note or the life saving Pacemaker!

2. Shifting from being in control to being open

I am a recovering control addict so this one is personal! Many of us are hard-wired to be in control and one step ahead at all times. We go to a meeting, and we want to make sure we get what we need from it. We’re baking with our kids, we want to limit the mess. We’re managing a team, we want to minimize the risk of errors being made. We are always forecasting.

We expend so much energy striving to optimize the upside and minimize the downside, that we become fixated and rigid and we fail to see other (better?) possibilities around us.

The trouble is that so much of what goes on in the world, especially now, is beyond our control. No more so for those people who are charged with creating the future of work.

I’m not suggesting that chaos is the way forward, but by loosening our grip on control, we ultimately become more agile, and capable of flexing and flowing with whatever comes our way.

Easier said than done! I found it really counter intuitive, until I invested some time in practicing openness. So here are some safe practices that you can try out to develop more openness;

  • Go to a meeting and avoid speaking until everyone else has spoken. Really listen to what everyone else says and share observations of what you’ve heard, prior to sharing your own point of view. What do you learn from the experience?

  • Defer a decision that you’d normally make in the moment. Think about it. Maybe chew it over with a colleague or friend. Sleep on it. Pick it up again the following day. Wait. Then decide. What did you notice? What was different?

  • Go for a walk. Walk as slowly as you can. Notice everything around you. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel?

Ease into the unpredictability

If we could predict the future, I wouldn’t be writing this blog and you wouldn’t be reading it! Uncertainty is a reality of the current landscape of work, no more so for the change agents who are developing better future states for our organizations. With this reality in mind, we need to adapt our nervous systems to be more at ease with the messy in-between state of change.

Hopefully my tips will help you ease into the unpredictability 💓


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