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Leading Through Uncertainty

One of the most difficult tasks a leader encounters is guiding others through change. It’s difficult to navigate ambiguity by oneself, but to lead others through complexity and uncertainty requires a triad of strength, vulnerability and agility.

People often resist change because it places them into the unknown and that’s uncomfortable. However, today’s accelerating technology and unprecedented levels of business change makes the unknown inevitable. The key then, is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. To orchestrate this, the best leaders make people feel safe and confident in their ability to lead, thus able to surrender control, trusting to be led through the uncertainty.

Leaders who are what I call, securely vulnerable are confident enough in their abilities to demonstrate both strength and vulnerability. As Brene’ Brown describes, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness”. Leaders who embody this duality exhibit a human element people can identify with, while projecting strength and a vision that compels others to follow.

To satisfy the need for safety, leaders can, as Simon Sinek points out, “create an environment in which people feel comfortable making mistakes and being real without ridicule or reprimand, reducing the threats felt inside the group, frees them up to focus on seizing the big opportunities and protecting the organization from the constant dangers outside”.

An environment of transparency, in which leaders accept and share the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable will create a sense of safety. Oftentimes, when a leader doesn’t have all the information or doesn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ just yet, he/she withholds communicating to the organization. However, this lack of communication sets off even more alarms. When the future is uncertain, the first coping mechanism humans reach for is attempting to learn as much as possible. A lack of information creates a breeding ground for rumination, gossip and stories. To stop this stress response before it starts, it behooves leaders to communicate something…even if it’s stating there is no additional information at the time, but once there is, it will be shared. This will put people’s minds at ease, making them feel cared about and included instead of watching from the sidelines as decisions are made about their lives.

How people perceive the future is another factor in how they deal with it. If they can’t see the purpose and benefits of a change, they’re much more likely to resist it. Leaders and change agents have the power to alter how a change is perceived and adopted, simply by reframing it in terms of the benefits to those experiencing it. While extremely important, this is often overlooked. It requires putting oneself in the shoes of their people and asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” Even if the future state is strictly a win for the company’s bottom line, it needs to be positioned in a way that speaks to the organization’s larger purpose and how it’s connected to the individual. People need to see how it personally affects them.

Once a foundation of trust is established, there are several ways to move past the paralysis of the unknown into action:

Start with what is known and fill in the blanks as you go. You’ll never have all the answers, but starting with what you know fills in some of the gaps, while building efficacy. This creates momentum.Taking an experimental perspective, moves the mind from binary, black/white, right/wrong thinking into a more expansive, productive, innovative zone of hypotheses testing, iterating and progressing as you go. It may be messy at first, but the point is exploration, not perfection. few ways to do this include:

Constraints – imposing limitations enables you to find creative ways to solve the problem.

Improvisational techniques – by taking a “yes, and” approach, you accept what is and move past it.

Piloting - Prototype on a smaller scale, gathering feedback in real-time to course-correct as you go.

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