Times of worker and management uncertainty are higher than ever. Merger and acquisition activity is expected to continue its brisk pace, hybrid work shows no signs of slowing down with 51% of global knowledge workers already remote and 75% saying their expectations of remote work ability have increased.
Workers are also re-examining their lives in response to the pandemic and future of work, with 65% of employees saying the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their lives.
I’ve found it useful in uncertain times like these to have some guidelines to help shape my thinking toward useful directions and away from anxieties and counterproductive behaviors that can sometimes arise just due to how we’re built to respond to uncertainty. They’re not always the behaviors that come naturally, which is why they may look a little strange at first.
What Do You Mean by “Uncertainty”?
Uncertainty is a lack of perfect knowledge of all outcomes of a situation. When you’re in it, you don’t know all the ways things could go. Some good, some bad. If you did know, and knew the probabilities of each outcome, it would be called risk, not uncertainty. Risk - and perfect knowledge - is more like the roulette wheel, and less like life. The game we’re in is more like … well, throwing your name in the Goblet of Fire, suggests Frantz Miccoli. If you’d like a fun read about how ambiguity factors into uncertainty, have a look at this.
The point is, you need to deal with uncertainty differently than risk. When you have perfect knowledge, big data, deep analysis, and risk models will allow you to choose the “best” outcome. With uncertainty - those tools won’t work. You need new ones. And often they’re more subjective and context-driven than those that manage mathematical risk.
So here’s mine. I’ve been through a number of uncertain times in my career both as an employee and a manager and these come from experience. I’m interested to hear your thoughts too. Reach out anytime.
The Nine Guidelines
Here are the guidelines. They have no numbers, targets, or religious rules. They’re not meant to control your behavior. They’re not meant to stop your thinking. You’re in charge of your own rules. Read, consider, and apply as fits.
1: The past is not a predictor. Do not overfit your assumptions to an uncertain future. Hold your own ideas loosely and look for present context. The further back you’re searching for data, trying to prove to yourself what the uncertain future will yield, the more wrong the data is likely to be. Read more on the role of data and the human brain in risk vs uncertainty here.
2: Focus on what value you can deliver. Do not focus on “how to keep things the way they are”. Your natural risk aversion bias will go into overdrive. It won’t lead to good choices for you or your team. Instead, focus on finding and solving valuable problems for the business. Those problems change. Change with them as appropriate. Read more on risk aversion bias here. Also: Is loss aversion a myth? Gosh, maybe! Does that change my guidance? Not yet.
3: Learn actively. Have learning and development goals for yourself. Mix theory and practice. Look for ways to put your learnings into action immediately to allow lessons to stick. This builds personal momentum and keeps you thinking ahead, not back. Every situation is an opportunity to learn, so pick your lessons. Read more on sticky learning here.
4: Always have a plan you’re working toward. Do not wait for orders. Do not wait for a full understanding of the entire business situation. There’s too much changing too fast. You have the best view now of what you can do to help the business. Build a path, take action, start today. Tell people what you’re doing and get feedback, but don’t wait for the starting gun. If orders do come, reflect on whether your plan should be modified. Read an interesting hacker study on decentralized leadership here.
5: Reserve dedicated time to enact your plans. There will always be reactive work, scrambles, favors and finessing to do that’ll fill every inbox in every communication tool you have. It will take 100% of your available time if you let it. So don’t. Prioritize, be realistic, and make progress with deep work toward the goals you have set in your plans - nobody will prioritize it for you but you. Read more on making time and space for deep work here.
6: Have more conversations, not fewer. It might be tempting to “turtle up” and isolate during uncertain times. Exposing your plans to others, or even hearing bad news can seem like a risk you don’t want to take … but resist that urge. Do not isolate yourself. You should learn, share, partner, and be vocal. Isolating away from others creates inflexibility and a lack of context, both unhelpful alignments during uncertainty.
7: Don’t gossip. Be thoughtful with your words. When connecting with others, remember: your words have power. Without realizing it, you can spread fear, disinformation, and harm if you speak carelessly. Don’t be a source of gossip, and be careful what you take in. Have conversations to share context and creativity, not just to commiserate.
8: Share the credit and elevate others. Do not overfocus on individual heroics. Team-build, collaborate solutions with others whenever possible, and celebrate the successes of others. This leads to better solutions and higher morale and momentum for you and others. Even the little wins matter. Practice gratitude - it’s an antidote for fatigue.
9: Be ready and flexible to change. Things are going to change. Today’s job isn’t tomorrow’s job. Your skills, your experience, your attitude and your relationships are going to all apply in a complex equation to bring you along the path to wherever the next step is. Whether it’s here or at another company, you’re on a journey. Be open to it.