Its Tough at the Top #2: Nurturing Uncertainty is the Best Way to Manage It

Every business experiences change that creates worrisome uncertainty: new innovations, new competitors, and shifting customer needs just to name a few examples. In our experience, leaders manage uncertainty in some predictable ways:

  • Freeze from its implications
  • Toss the hot potato
  • Run from or ignore danger
  • Nurture it with questions

To be clear, we’re talking about uncertainty which is spawned by a complex series of events and actors, not risk, which is actually quantifiable and addressable. We’ve found those leaders who resist the human urges of avoidance and actually nurture uncertainty, greatly improve their decision making processes and actually strengthen their organization, morale, and performance. In fact, many leaders have found it so important, they actually find it valuable to continued organizational development, even going so far as to occasionally manufacture uncertainty.

To understand this dynamic, it’s important to first recognize that how you handle uncertainty is really, at its core, a reflection of how you handle decision making in general.

As an executive or business owner, not a day goes by where you are not making decisions. Of course we understand the differences between the “easy” ones, born of your experience and instinct, with the more knotty ones which have wider ranging, longer term P&L implications. If you step back a minute, we’ll show you that the distance between these is much shorter than you realize and is a simple result of how you handle uncertainty as a leader.

When faced with uncertainty, first face the fact you don’t know everything.

You know you are not the “omniscient” knowledge center of the area(s) in your charge. (Our first article offered a solution to this leadership conundrum). Decision making with incomplete information is a reality, and while it’s simple human nature to avoid it, we all know that incomplete information creates a dangerously distorted interpretation of reality.

You have leaders; Use them.

We start with the firm belief that everyone is a leader, not just “the executives”, where “the Buck stops here”. If you want to effect change in your organization, you must empower everyone. By offering transparency to the uncertainty, your people will proactively tell you where they can make a real difference. Thus, “uncertainty” is transferred away from your desk alone, spurring organizational involvement…and solution ideation. It’s likely you have read some of the thousands of thoughtful articles on “best leadership practices”. The takeaway on all of these is similar; “leaders lead people”, and never alone by dictum.

A real bonus of sharing the uncertainty is that new leaders are cultivated and staff becomes more engaged as a result of giving everyone an emotional and intellectual stake in driving the outcomes you want

While it may seem counterintuitive, uncertainty is actually your strongest leverage point to creating a win-win environment where leaders emerge and business performance improves. Here’s how it works: the more questions you ask of your people while consistently challenging them to contribute to the resolution, the better the leader you become. Not only is this a proven straight line to superior organizational “buy-in”, but it awards everyone an emotional and intellectual stake in driving the outcomes you and your business need. Morale and work ethic are certain to skyrocket. New ideas will fly and, put in far more simple terms: all of us want to be, and in this scenario are, genuinely valued. It’s a Win/Win scenario!

I’ll repeat it: since you aren’t the sole purveyor of all company knowledge, enthusiastically bring others into the process.

It’s so productive that even when uncertainties pass, you can continue to cultivate the organizational and individual benefits we’ve extolled by periodically manufacturing uncertainty.

We urge executives and business owners to be circumspect about their leadership style, and ask: are you doing everything you can to bring in multiple voices to daily challenges? Or is your title and ego interfering with your businesses performance? Ouch. We promise that applying the approach here will positively reflect in your strategic and financial performance. Go ahead, embrace uncertainty and feel free to even create it for the well-being of the organization you lead.

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