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Dealing With Uncertainty

By Donna Weston – Executive Career Coach

A significant theme for all our clients this year is “dealing with uncertainty”. Whether that is someone who has been made redundant and is uncertain about when and where their next role will come from,  those who have a job and are uncertain about whether it is still right for them in the current context, or leaders who are navigating constant change as they adjust to Covid-19 restrictions and the economic impact of the pandemic.

With this in mind, here are a few pointers to keep your head above water during high levels of uncertainty:-

Take Action: Even in the face of uncertainty a bias for action will serve you well.  Uncertainty can be  difficult to deal with because there isn’t a clear destination and multiple options can quickly make  decisions seem overwhelming. Set the bar low to identify small achievable goals and ask yourself, what next small action can I take based on the information I currently have to achieve this goal? Take action, monitor the impact – and then, what is your next step based on where you are now? These small actions will compound over time giving you a sense of forward momentum and achievement.

Future Focus: Change is hard during uncertain times, however, the day to day still needs to be balanced with having one eye on the future.  Bill Sharpe’s 3 Horizons framework is a practical model that will help to determine transformative action.  The framework identify’s 3 relationships with the future (horizons) that are evident in the present. Horizon 1 is about the how we do things now and keep those things going (Bill Sharpe refers to this as the managerial voice). It is useful to think about Horizon 3 next which is the promise of the future, a better way of doing things – what glimmers of this future are evident now? Horizon 2 connects Horizon 1 and Horizon 3, the entrepreneurial voice that is prepared to experiment (and fail) to find the way forward. How can you move the dial from Horizon 1 decision making to Horizon 2?.

Balance being and doing:  I am advocate for taking action, it will often make you feel better and won’t allow problems to grow. However, watch out for sitting too far at the “doing” end of the being-doing spectrum which can lead to burnout and exhaustion. Do carve out time for “being” – this is time for non-striving, such as reading a book for pleasure, taking a walk in nature, time to talk to colleagues about non-work related topics or exploring mindfulness.  And if you are finding things difficult do ask for help. The Mayo Clinic, a world leading health service provider, has a set of questions you can ask yourself to assess whether you are suffering symptoms of burnout ( Mayo Clinic Burnout Questions).

Manage Self-Doubt: Times of uncertainty can elevate feelings of self-doubt and you may need to put in some extra work to manage your confidence gremlins. Your inner-critic will say things like you will not be able to cope, exaggerate your failures, jump to conclusions and see only the negative in a situation.  Allow space for your inner-mentor – your kind supportive inner-friend who provides a balanced view, appreciates that we are all human, that nobody is perfect, and that we will be able to cope. Consciously look for and listen to your inner-mentor and dial down your inner-critic.

Foster a team mentality: I recently watched MIT Sloan Management Review webinar entitled “out of the crisis, into the unknown”, delivered by Eric McNulty (Leadership expert) who said:

 “it isn’t by building individual resilience that you create group resilience, it is by building group resilience that you actually foster individual resilience”

By encouraging a team mentality rather than individual mentality the risk of burnout can be reduced and resiliency improved at an organisational level.  In practice this can mean ensuring that there are robust systems in place to enable work to be transitioned to others easily, eg. at the end of shifts or to allow time off, and by ensuring there are tools available to maintain connections with others whilst working remotely.

At an individual level this is a reminder of how important your support network is, despite the current barriers to connecting (I write this as we go into our second lockdown) don’t give up on nurturing your network. A practical tip is to have a jar on your desk with all the names of the people you would like to keep in touch with on a slip of paper; every day (or week if it’s more manageable!) pull out a name and commit to making contact with that person.

Share Success: Despite the current challenging times we have seen incredible transformative learning over the last eight months (more on that next month!). Look out for your successes and share these to spread the joy! In one organisation that I have seen, each team circulates a weekly email highlighting “what went well” for them so that the whole organisation can celebrate. Particularly in times of uncertainty every small win counts.

Read more about Donna here


Bill Sharpe – Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope

Marjolein Lips Wiersma and Lani Morris – The Map of Meaningful Work

Robert Pryor and Jim Bright – Chaos Theory of Careers

Professor Steve Peters – The Chimp Paradox