Help Your Team Embrace Uncertainty

People dislike uncertainty. By dislike it, I mean hate it. It’s fear of uncertainty, at least in part, that often keeps us stuck in jobs we don’t like, in relationships that aren’t healthy, with processes that are outdated, and in systems that are broken. Most of the time, we’d rather stick with a suboptimal solution we know, then step out into the unknown and hope we will end up with something better. 

When we do step out into the unknown, whether by choice or by circumstance, the desire to grab onto anything that feels stable is strong. Our fear of uncertainty kicks in. We feel unmoored, and our instinct is to grab on to the first concrete option that comes along. As a result, we accept the first job offer, agree to a compromise, make a premature decision. Once again, the solution often ends up being a suboptimal one – but hey, something sure does feel better than nothing.

Leading change of any kind requires helping people cope with prolonged uncertainty. It requires helping them resist the urge to grab on to the first handhold available and embrace the fall. It requires purposefully creating and holding space for not knowing, for deciding not to decide. It requires creating periods of opening doors rather than closing them. Resistance to change manifests in many ways, but often it is this fear that is underlying all of them. Effective change leaders have to get to this root cause.

Addressing underlying resistance to change requires recognizing that uncertainty is a healthy place to visit, but a destructive place to live. Teams, people, and organizations that are unwilling to step out into uncertain spaces are severely limiting the upside of what they can achieve. On the other hand, teams, people and organizations that live in a perpetual state of not knowing are equally f*%!ed. Effective change leaders help their team purposefully step out in the void, hold the fall for long enough, then land and regroup. Ideally, this adventure is made explicit.

“Ok team, we’re going to step off this ledge together. I don’t know exactly where we are going to land. But I do know that when we jump, we’re all going to want to grab back on. Let’s not. Let’s help each other hold this space, and let’s land somewhere new. This means the next few months are going to be uncomfortable. But I’m confident that if we can do it, new doors will open and we will land in a place that is preferable to where we are today.”

Of course, there is the risk that the new landing spot will actually be no better, or even worse than where you start. This isn’t just an irrational fear. It’s demonstrably true. There’s no guarantee that the result of stepping out into the unknown will be a better boyfriend, or a more fulfilling job, or a more equitable system, or an elegant and feasible solution to a problem that feels intractable.

Once again, the best answer is the honest one. Rather than argue, falsely, that there is no way the new landing spot could be worse than the current one, effective change leaders acknowledge this downside possibility. They help people (including themselves) visualize what it could feel like, and gain confidence that, no matter the scenario, they will be ok. Then they jump.