Uncertainty Makes Us Miserable

People are more stressed out when there is the possibility (uncertainty) they will experience discomfort as opposed to when they know for sure something bad is coming. ~Alexandra Sifferlin

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Uncertainty makes us miserable. If given the choice, we would rather know, for certain, that a bad outcome/event is coming, than to live with uncertainty. We really hate uncertainty.

Think of personal situations where this may have played out for you. For example, knowing for sure that your flight was canceled might be less stressful than being kept in suspense as it is repeatedly delayed. Or, you are waiting for any kind of test results (academic, medical, etc.). If you’re certain it went really well or really badly, you might not feel as much stress than if you’re totally uncertain about the outcome (lead study author Archy de Berker, of the University College London).

Knowing this phenomenon explains a lot for me about why strategic plans fail more frequently than they succeed. If it’s really strategic, the plan will include change. And along with that change will likely be uncertainty.

What leaders fail to see, or maybe accept, is that uncertainty is a feeling. Ultimately, we’ll change what we do when we wrestle with how we feel about it.

What can leaders do?

Here are just two things that can help teams, and an entire organization, go through change (i.e., uncertainty) and not become stagnant. Recommended by Patti Sanchez, The Secret to Leading Organizational Change Is Empathy.

Tell People What to Expect

We could all take a lesson from the medical profession. Even my dental hygienist tells me what she’s about to do and what I can expect (how it might feel) throughout a simple cleaning. I’m assuming she’s been taught to communicate what to expect in order to reduce the patient’s stress.

What to expect is more than just the facts. For example, a leader might communicate a change such as phasing out service “x” so that service “y” can be added. Don’t stop there. Give them more detail about the timeline and the process. Then acknowledge how this might make them feel (guilt for having to let some clients go, fearful that the new service won’t succeed, etc.).

Profile Your Audience at Every Stage

Ask questions to uncover beliefs, feelings, questions, and concerns about the strategy or change. Identify how each employee segment feels about the change effort, and plan communications based on whether they are excited, frightened, or frustrated. This is not telling them how they should feel; it’s acknowledging how they do feel.

If a leader is doing their job well, then they are likely leading change. If that leader wants others to follow, they have to lead in a way that recognizes that uncertainty is one of the greatest stressors and barriers to leading change and strategy.

In other words, be bold, move toward change. And, do it with grace by listening and responding to not only what people think, but what they feel.

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