2 min read

How to handle uncertainty

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Last week, I argued that people don’t actually fear change. As I outlined in this LinkedIn post, we fear what change represents: loss, uncertainty, learning and challenge.

All four of those are tricky, but uncertainty could be the hardest. Change management is one of this year’s most in-demand services, but what we really need is uncertainty management.

Uncertainty management is the new change management
Uncertainty management gives us the skills to plan for an uncertain future and face the unknown - because that stuff is exhausting. We feel stuck in place. Powerless. It’s understandable right now, but it’s dangerous. That stuckness, left unchecked, is a fast track to burnout.

When COVID hit, we had a common enemy to fight – things to change, things to do, adrenaline to keep us going. Now, though, the stuckness is creeping in. We don’t know when it’s going to end, or what it’s going to mean, and if we’re not careful, we start to feel a bit… over it. We get cynical. Our work and lives lose meaning.

Just about everyone I talk to right now has some variety of this stuckness. But uncertainty isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s time we got better at dealing with it.

You can't always change the thing
I recently encountered a powerful idea that I’d love to share with you - when it comes to stressful circumstances, it’s not always the stressor you need to manage – it’s the stress.

This podcast interview between Brene Brown and Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle really spoke to me. It also inspired me to read the book – which I’m now recommending left, right and centre, especially to women.

Burnout, the Nagoski twins posit, happens when we get stuck in the middle of a stress response cycle – and the ticket out is finding a way to complete your own response.

As an action-oriented, #GSD kind of a person, I’ve spent my life making decisions, doing things quickly and charging forward. Realising that changing the thing isn’t always the answer – and will rarely be the entire solution - was a lightbulb moment for me.

In high uncertainty environments, this is a potent lesson, because you often can’t change the thing. What you can change is how you respond, and find agency in what you can control.

Play the question game
Here’s a helpful exercise I like to use with clients. I call it the Question Game, and it has magic powers for uncertainty management. You can’t work with what you can’t see, and uncertainty can feel like a nameless, shapeless fog. So, get it down. Make it real. Get all of that uncertainty out on a page, in the form of questions.

Step One: List all of your unspoken questions. Work ones, life ones, personal ones. Big ones, and small ones. You might write things like: "Will my job be safe?" "Will I be able to travel to see my family overseas soon?" "Will my kids be OK with my divorce?" "Will my business survive the year?" "Should we invest in that new system?" "Should we put this service online?"

Step Two: Work through each of your questions in turn, attempting an answer for each. Mine are usually some variety of:

  • Yes (So make a plan, take action, or stop thinking about it!)

  • No (So do what you have to, to let it go)

  • Maybe (It will become clear. Take a small step or try an experiment.)

Step Three: Take a deep breath, and feel better and more in control of your fog.

When you put it all down this way, your uncertainty stops being a dark cloud in your head, dragging you down and keeping you tired, and becomes a manageable, malleable little beast that you can draw lines through and talk about. And right now, that’s about the best we can ask for.

Who knows what’s coming next? Not me.
Give the question game a go – and let me know how you get on!