Five tips for navigating uncertain times

Navigating a chaotic, ever-changing, uncertain, risky, ambiguous, volatile landscape seems like standard operating procedure for many leaders these days.


It’s often really hard for leaders to admit that we don’t know what to do, or even what’s going on. Helping our organizations and teams navigate a pandemic, changes imposed from the top, and volatile marketplaces often feels like peering into a dark, water-filled cave that you’ve never been through before. What’s that moving in the darkness, or is it just a trick of the light? Should we proceed or look for a way around? What’s waiting on the other side? Is there another side or is it a dead end? What if I lead my team to destruction?


That’s because our brains see uncertainty and change as threats to our survival. It’s a hard-wired evolutionary response to help us survive. When we don’t know what’s ahead in that cave, our stress response gets triggered to prepare our bodies to fight, flee, or freeze. That’s a really good adaptive response when navigating a dark, watery cave armed with a spear, but not such a great response when navigating uncertainty in the modern world.


The way we respond to an ever changing, chaotic, uncertain landscape at work is often closely related to what we did as a kid when a parent or teacher asks us a question that we don’t know the answer to. We develop habits around how we respond to risk and uncertainty that often persist for decades.


What did you do as a kid when you didn’t know the answer or didn’t know what to do? Me – I faked self-assurance and confidence, especially if I might let someone else down. It’s a habit born from years and years of trying to impress parents, teachers, and professors. And immediately following my outward displays of confidence were feelings of inward guilt and shame. “I should know what to do. Everyone’s turning to me because they think I’m the smart one. What if what I just said was wrong. Now I’ve led them astray. Who am I kidding? They’ll realize I was a fraud this whole time.”


Other common reactions to not knowing are to lash out (“Really? How could you not know.”), work harder (“I’ll just stay up all night reading the textbook until I figure it out.”), run away (“I’ll be right back,” … hide stage left), or freeze (“Um…”). Notice the similarity to the stress response – fight, flight, freeze.


On the Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat, Tutti and I take our participants kayaking through watery sea caves specifically so that we can help them experience their own typical responses to uncertainty and now knowing in a safe way, and draw analogies to their patterns in the workplace. We encourage them to push into an uncertain landscape with a small experiment that’s scary but not terrifying, and then process what happened.


Try a small scale experiment of your own. Most often, you’ll find that your fears and anxieties were overblown. Remember, our brains see uncertainty and change as a threat to our survival. What you’re doing with a small experiment is proving to your brain that this particular form of chaos is not as scary as it seems.


With that, here’s some specific tips on how to navigate uncertain periods in your life:


1. Allow for negative emotions. Stress, fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, and shame are all really normal emotions to feel when faced with an uncertain, chaotic, ever-changing landscape. Discomfort is normal, and expected. You are human after all. That’s just how we’re wired. Suppressing negative emotions is not the solution. Instead, name the emotion. Allow yourself to feel it. As you proceed, it will dissipate on its own.


2. Focus on what you can control. In times of change and uncertainty, there’s often more information coming at you than any human can handle. In that situation, your mind will often wander, ruminate, or giagntify (aka imagine all the worst case scenarios). Rather than those responses, see if you can direct your attention to those things you actually can control. Maybe if you can’t control the outcome, you can control the process. Maybe if you can’t control the process, you can control the lines of communication. And no matter what, you can always control your attitude.


3. Slow down and look from a different perspective. High achievers tend to have a bias towards action. We get out of sorts and get frustrated when there’s no obvious solution or clear course of action. In that case, slow down and change the lens you are looking through. Here’s three to choose from:

  • Wide angle. Look at the big picture instead of the specific situation. What’s your mission. What are your personal or organizational values. What is most important.

  • Microscope. Look at yourself. What did you tend to do as a kid when you were confronted with not knowing or uncertainty? Knowing your habitual patterns helps you recognize when you are falling into the same patterns in adulthood, and helps you be more intentional when you might want to choose to do something different.

  • Zoom. Look into the far distance. Imagine members of your team standing up to speak about how you acted in this moment at your funeral. What would you want them to say about what you did?

4. Don’t go command and control. Chaotic situations are complex, ever-changing, ambiguous and volatile. That calls for agile, small scale experiments and flexible thinking. The overall goal should be forward progress through teamwork and learning. That takes humility, trial and error, and trust in the ingenuity of others that are empowered to respond at speed to rapidly changing situations. So don’t try to control everything. Instead, encourage lots of small scale experimentation by lots of people. Your job is to attend to those people’s emotions and stress levels and keep lines of communication open and flowing so that everyone is moving in the same direction and learning from each others’ mistakes.


5. Focus on your resources. It’s natural in times of crisis to dwell on scarcity. There’s not enough time, energy, or manpower to do it all. That’s a given. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of resources and things in your favor. Name them. What strengths, gifts, and talents are present in yourself or on your team? Lean into your strengths. Who can you turn to for support and help? Don’t go it alone. How have you or your team shown resilience in past crises? What worked then, might help now.


Read More

This Harvard Business Review article and this one from Forbes offer another great perspective on navigating uncertain times.


And for a great talk on avoiding command and control, check out this one by Siawn Ou about backflips.


Going Further

If navigating the uncertainty of a watery sea cave in the companionship of other women sounds amazing to you, or if you know of a woman who would love that in her life right now, consider the Heroine’s Journey. Hurry. Enrollment closes at the end of this week – April 22.


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If you are seeking one-on-one support to navigate a chaotic landscape in your life, reach out today.