Life and work are chock full of worry …
What about that promotion my boss promised but hasn’t mentioned?
Are there going to be layoffs?
What does this restructure mean for my job?
Will AI replace me? ...
How do we face these fears, and many others like them? We are all feeling a great deal of uncertainty, and according to the World Uncertainty Index, uncertainty has been on the rise for decades. But the concerns above are timeless (replace “AI” with any technology).
The truth is that we live in a world of change, which also means uncertainty. Developing “uncertainty ability,” or the ability to face uncertainty and see the possibilities hidden within is a critical, but often missing, leadership and survival capability.
In our research, we studied the tools innovators, creators, leaders, and others use to develop their uncertainty ability. These tools help us to face the kinds of questions above with less anxiety and greater possibility.
Let’s take some concrete examples. In a recent podcast, a participant shared that their boss promised a promotion six months earlier but hadn’t said a word since. The listener was on pins and needles wondering if their performance had tumbled or their boss reconsidered. The anxiety—ruminating about what their boss might be thinking and what would be next—only detracted from their quality of life and work. Even if you are in a different situation, if you insert your situation, you likely feel similar counter-productive anxiety. What can you do?
First, let’s unpack the structure of what’s happening. This person is likely falling into a very common trap of “binary thinking.” That is, obsessing about two possible outcomes: I lose the promotion (or the job, my relevance, etc.) or I don’t. Then the mind—because of our evolutionary wiring—starts to worry about the terrifying and shadowy scenario of losing something, creating anxiety about which we can do almost nothing. In this dark nether zone, we then start to make up stories about the boss looking down on us, and in the next meeting, we can’t shake the worry at the edge of our minds.
There are several solutions in this case. The first is to counteract the binary thinking with a technique drawn from decision theory and employed intuitively by many of the entrepreneurs we interviewed: substitute the binary thinking with “alternatives and probabilities.” Specifically, list out the most prominent alternatives and assign them probabilities. For example, these could include: the boss just forgot, the promotion has been delayed, there are other candidates ahead of me, the boss dislikes me, etc. Then assign these probabilities. Quickly, you will see that the “boss dislikes me” scenario has a low probability.
The second tool is drawn from psychology and involves looking directly at that shadowy misfortune that you keep obsessing about by unpacking the “worst-case scenario.” In essence, you look directly at the thing you are scared about and honestly examine the implications of what you are worrying about. For example, in the case of the boss who has dropped the promotion: what happens if you ask the boss? Perhaps they forgot? Perhaps they can be straight with you about the delay, and then at least you can put your worry to rest.
Let me close with an example of both principles at work in my own life. Because most of my income comes from teaching and speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic created an immense amount of financial uncertainty. We had just bought an apartment (meaning a new mortgage) and have four kids, many of them in university. Suddenly my calendar of external speaking hit a wall and there were questions about whether the university could survive. I’ll admit—I was freaking out. Always at the back of his mind was the worry that we would go bankrupt or the university might fold. Finally, I applied some of these tools. First, I outlined the alternatives and assigned them probabilities. What was the probability the school folded or I went bankrupt? In fact, they were probably modest. Then I unpacked this “worst-case scenario.” What would happen if the university failed and I went bankrupt? Would there still be some demand for speeches and training in the future, however modest? Could our family relocate somewhere less expensive, say the countryside, or even a small coastal town where there might be more time for research, writing, and the occasional speech? And what if the demand for my skills evaporated entirely, what other things might I enjoy? Planting a garden? Suddenly the worst-case scenario transformed from terrifying to manageable and even slightly interesting.
We can apply these tools for ourselves in times of crisis, or we can apply them in a team or organization. One of the great tasks of a leader is often to help people 1) step back, 2) see the alternatives and probabilities, 3) that the worst-case scenario is manageable and 4) then have the courage to move forward. Ultimately, these tools help us feel calmer, less anxious, and realize that, as the famous enlightenment philosopher Michel de Montaigne is reported to have observed: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”