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Managing uncertainty

Ironically change and uncertainty are the only things guaranteed in life (other than death and taxes, but I thought that was too heavy for here), and yet both (all!) make many of us twitchy.

Last week I dug into change and how we can make it easier for ourselves to go with it; this week I wanted to introduce you to an exercise I found helpful, that focusses more specifically on our relationship with control and certainty.

Wanting to have control, whether that be over people, circumstances or aspects of ourselves, and our lives is all about creating certainty. We crave certainty. There is a nervousness or even fear that persists around uncertainty for many; we work very hard to move into a state of certainty as quickly as possible. But why do we have this concept that certainty is good, and uncertainty is bad?

Uncertainty is labelled as indecisive, unclear, possibly even lacking purpose, conviction, or direction; whereas certainty has positive labels – decisive, having clarity, determined, purposeful. Of course, there are many, many situations where certainty will serve us – pragmatically speaking we do have to get on with specific tasks to survive in life and in career. At some stage we do have to say yes or no and follow through, even if that just means we eat versus not eat that particular day. But if we put certainty in the context of our careers, and we strive solely for certainty and certainly alone, then we potentially stifle a more interesting, challenging and fulfilling career path.

High degrees of certainty can actually restrict our opportunities for development. We start to plan for only what we can see, and our growth becomes dependant on what is in front of us today. Squiggly Careers

I have always loved certainty and avoided uncertainty. I like a plan and I like to stick to it, and when it came to my career I was very, very, set in where I thought it should be headed and what I needed to experience and demonstrate in order to achieve that. And for a while that plan served me well, but with the (irritating) benefit of hindsight, I now know that I walked past a lot of opportunities because they didn’t fit with the certainty that I needed. My rigid plan ensured that my career was held similarly rigid, along with myself, and I denied myself the personal and professional growth that could have been experienced by partnering with new, broader networks, challenging myself to learn something different, or in new ways, or leaning into difficult situations and conversations, as opposed to manoeuvring my way around them.

I loved this slide spelling out some of the unintended consequences of avoiding uncertainty.

Credit: Psychology Tools

So, what can we do to help ourselves loosen that grip on control and begin to open ourselves the possibilities that sitting with uncertainty can afford us?

Here’s the exercise that I found so helpful from a leadership course I attended at BMW:

Start by capturing, by naming, what the uncertainty is that is causing you concern. Try to narrow this into one succinct sentence. You may be facing a decision or a problem at work, perhaps a challenging conversation needs to be had, or perhaps a change is coming, about which you have little input… bottom line it to one sentence.

Now answer these questions for yourself:

Circle 3: AWARENESS: What am I aware of about this concern?

Circle 2: INFLUENCE: What can I influence about this? Who can I influence? How can I have influence? What will I do to have influence?

Circle 1: CONTROL: What about this concern can I directly control? How can I demonstrate that control – what is one action I can take, one behaviour I can show?

And finally: What one thing can I let go of about this concern?

It’s an incredibly simple exercise, I find the good ones often are, but it helped me firstly articulate what the actual worry was, something I hadn’t surprisingly spent much time on. It then helped me formulate a plan of action. I was able to see much more clearly that focussing any attention on those elements I had no control over, was a waste of precious energy. It was far more sensible and productive to redirect my energy into the areas I could control and influence - which were far narrower and therefore less overwhelming. When I started to zero in on people who may support, on who, and how, I needed to show up differently, I suddenly had something to aim for. And the letting go – this was such a relief- the one thing I named to let go of, was having the definitive answer – a fixed plan. I actually allowed myself the concept of letting the need for certainty go. Yeah, I know, mind blown. What followed was a much freer approach to my career and career planning – it was from this exercise that the idea of experimentation really took hold. Yes, uncertainty has undoubtedly increased in my life from the paths I have chosen, but with it, so too, has learning, connection, growth, expertise, confidence, and resilience.

There are times when certainty is the right path. Where I want to leave you, is with the thought that there is room and need also for uncertainty in our lives; it doesn’t represent the lesser path or deserve the bad wrap it gets when someone chooses it.

If there's one thing that's certain in business, it's uncertainty. Stephen Covey

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