The first in a co-created series of blogs about working and living with uncertainty.

“There is no answer anymore, it’s just a series of iterations and challenges” - Gary Bramall of Hailo

With agency life and agile ways of working comes a huge degree of uncertainty. We don’t always know what projects are coming through the door, what it is we are going to build, or sometimes even, what the problem is we are seeking to solve - and that can be a scary place to be for us and our clients! But it’s in the journey and the process that we discover collaboratively, what the best outcomes might look like.

Image: Vicky Peel

Image: Vicky Peel

Added to ongoing daily uncertainty and change, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind ourselves of the amount of uncertainty and anxiety that we constantly live with. Any certainty we might have felt we had - to plan, to organise, to anticipate and expect, has been turned upside down. It’s the first time in many years that we have globally shared a collective experience of huge uncertainty and the anxiety that has come with it; it’s a fine balancing act to be able to embrace the unknown and see the opportunities, while managing the threats we see all around. But as Pliny the Elder said “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

Considering why and how we respond to uncertainty, change and doubt is important for our mental wellbeing, our productivity and our creativity. We need to feel a sense of control and agency in the world, whether it’s around our working life, home life, health, or the world around us. But the rub is, as humans we can never be certain of what’s around the corner and on the up side, some thinking suggests that there is a positive power to uncertainty and doubt that can be truly harnessed for the good. So we’ve been thinking about how uncertainty and doubt affect our wellbeing and our workplace, why we react like we do and how we can respond positively to what’s going on around us.

Individual Struggles with Uncertainty and Change - Neuroscience and how to support ourselves

Although our human brains are so very highly developed, we are in fact incredibly vulnerable to uncertainty and change in our environment. We process millions of bits of information to make sense of the world. The VUCA acronym has perhaps never felt so relevant; it can feel like we are living and working in times of huge volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Conditions which have a hugely negative impact on our attention; a crucial element of our brain function.

Our automatic responses mean that we don’t deal too well with uncertainty and doubt, and it puts a strain on our attention and ability to function to our best. Research shows that we aren’t so good at predicting outcomes very accurately either. In fact an annoying feature of our brains is that we tend to mispredict or catastrophize situations and will often predict a far worse or far better outcome than actually happens.

From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. We are programmed to ‘scan’ our environment for uncertainty (danger) to predict, to be on high alert, risk assessing - and when our expectations match up, we pattern match to catastrophic interpretations. Uncertainty happens when the familiar ground shifts and we don’t know what will happen next. We are hardwired to respond to the lack of certainty or predictability that we crave - it’s a threat and in the face of this threat our nervous systems are on high alert, braced for our automatic reactions - fight, flight or freeze, the amygdala swells and the prefrontal cortex shrinks. And when we are in this highly aroused state, we lose our ability to reason, to think clearly and calmly and often to see someone else’s point of view. While this mechanism was essential for keeping us alive thousands of years ago, in our complex modern world, we face very different, multiple threats to our sense of self and these ancient brain mechanisms can work to overwhelm us on a much more frequent basis.

If we deal so badly with uncertainty then it doesn’t bode well for successful productivity, innovation or our health. It makes you wonder how we manage to actually get anything done! But we do, and there are ways that we can help ourselves in our personal and professional lives to better manage the worry or fear and embrace the opportunities it offers.

Feeling Safe with Uncertainty

“I don’t struggle with the unknown because I already know that I can’t control it. Instead, I like to look at the unknown as an opportunity for self-development” - Marie

We need to feel safe in the world and in our workplace. It’s from that innate sense of safety that we are freer to explore, to create, to challenge and to collaborate. Uncertainty and security are both natural expressions of emotion. What is it that makes us feel safe in our work environment? What is it that allows us to be creative, challenging and fearless? Safe uncertainty is about feeling comfortable with the world of just enough-ness, having just enough structure, just enough control and just enough planning to mitigate only the biggest of risks whilst leaving enough fluidity, spontaneity and freedom to welcome new possibilities.

Change leadership focuses on building the resilience of people and enabling them to live more comfortably with impermanence, uncertainty, ambiguity and lack of control. It’s easy to confuse safety with certainty and they aren’t necessarily the same thing “Underpinning work in this area is the hypothesis that, as humans, when we are asleep to our reactions, we confuse safety with certainty. We assume they are the same thing and we therefore unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) move towards safe certainty.” Safe certainty means that we are more likely to stick with the things we know, the things we already do, because that is what we are comfortable with, what we think works, when to change is too frightening or too risky. But they are not necessarily the best or most productive things to do for the work we produce, for the clients we work with or for our own personal wellbeing. It’s not just about leadership, it’s also about our day-to-day lives.

“The Unknown is the place we learn the most” - helping ourselves to embrace uncertainty and change

“Uncertainty makes me nervous at first. I put it off as much as I can until I have the courage to face it. But then when I eventually do, regardless of the outcome, I always feel stronger and more empowered for having faced it. Uncertainty - the unknown - this is where I learn the most” - Fiacré

It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of doubt, ambiguity and uncertainty but there are huge opportunities as Fiacré brilliantly says! So how can we support ourselves and each other, finding safety and opportunity in uncertainty in the workplace?

“Having a strong support network of high-quality, authentic connections” was an answer that consistently came back as a response to the question: “what makes you feel safe?” This, irrespective of the age, background, culture, gender or position of the person we spoke to. The relationships we build with colleagues, leaders, clients, friends and family provide an important support structure from which we are better able to navigate uncertainty and doubt - a great big safety net to catch us if we stumble while treading on uncertain ground and trying out new things. ‘Learning by Doing’ is a core Unboxed value and we strive to consistently find new solutions to old problems by learning, iterating and failing fast to get to the best end-product as quickly as possible. It can be challenging for all those on the journey but we can do it if we feel trusted and supported!

Image: Vicky Peel

Image: Vicky Peel

When Jo talked to Kassie about her relationship to uncertainty she talked about what feeling safe and having a strong support network means to her: “Good communication and being given the space to experiment and learn.” - Jo

All too often we turn to self-inhibiting coping strategies, or making choices that in the long run only offer diminishing returns. Even though they may feel like the safe and certain option to go with, they don’t always serve us well both personally and professionally. Struggling with uncertainty and doubt creates anxiety and worry is a way to cope with this - we mentally prepare ourselves for the worst outcome (remember we are good at mispredicting). That might be a useful strategy for some - if kept in check - but we can get a bit meta here if things escalate to worrying about the worry. So we need to find better, more helpful and productive ways to manage our automatic nervous system responses alongside better ways of managing the scale and effect of uncertainty by focusing on some of the things we can control and the opportunities we can find. We may not be able to stop change but we can influence change! Getting to grips with this distinction can be one of the most empowering “aha!” moments you may ever encounter.

“Uncertainty is a big part of my job. I work in an industry where uncertainty and ambiguity are a big part of daily life. This in turn has helped me in my personal life. Experience gained over the years has taught me to be kind to myself and to let go of things ‘outside of my circle of influence’. I used to live in the future but now, realising that the future is something that I can't control, I try to live in the present as much as possible” - Marie

Safer uncertainty is a journey with no definitive arrival point. But there are some daily practices that can help us personally as we try to develop a healthier behavioral response to the internal discomfort of change:

  • Be curiously awake. Practice self-awareness by noticing, without judgment, what thoughts and emotions are passing through.
  • Consciously reinforce the circumstances that allow us to feel safe.
  • Deliberately make a choice to actively embrace uncertainty.

There are also some practical daily activities that form part of a “safe uncertainty” toolkit that can aid us along the journey:

  • Practicing mindfulness can really help to focus our attention on the present moment. Setting aside the thoughts of the day and being mindfully present, whether it’s on the breath, on an activity like washing up or practicing yoga, is one of the most effective ways to stop the wandering mind and manage the anxiety that accompanies it. There are many apps apps to help ease you into the practice
  • Restricting “worry” to a scheduled block of time per day. Healthy Psych explains how this can be done.
  • Keeping a journal of experiences, learning and appreciation can help to focus on what you are able to control and do
  • Exercise is a constant in providing us with good endorphins and mental focus.

“Uncertainty could be seen as a path to creativity through possibility or as a path to paralysis – our own mindset determines which path we take.”

“Productive doubt” - a new super power

“What if doubt is not a failing or a floor, but a hidden source of power?” - Nicola Reindorp

Doubt and uncertainty can be personally crippling for people as individuals, as teams and organisations. But alongside some of the practical things we can do to help manage the negative effects of worry, we can try to reframe those thoughts and look at them from a different perspective.

Nicola Reindorp, the CEO of Crisis Action recently delivered a talk on Radio 4’s Four Thought about the power of doubt. She asks “what if doubt is not a failing or a floor but a hidden source of power?” While she talked insightfully about how her self doubt had affected her as a young woman and moving into the workplace, where doubt creates the discomfort of imposter syndrome, there were plenty of the negative aspects of uncertainty and doubt revealed. But they are only part of the story she suggests. There is another very important side to doubt that is highly productive and should be harnessed for the power it has. She suggests that doubt lies at the heart of self awareness and humility, it spurs curiosity and learning, it generates openness to feedback, prompts us to interrogate our biases and to challenge the status quo. At its core, it is a route to innovation, insight and inclusion - doubt is a super power!

“I’ve learnt that the physical reaction caused by the release of adrenaline is exactly the same for both fear and excitement. So now I try to reframe nervousness as excitement. Ahead of a public speaking engagement for example, I consciously trick my brain by thinking “well this could be fun!” it works really well!” - Jo

It seems that if we can reframe uncertainty with a measured level of risk and opportunity, in a supported environment, we are better able to embrace uncertainty, doubt and ambiguity and harness that potential for real good.

Now that we’re learning to master uncertainty on an individual basis, the next challenge is learning to master uncertainty within a team context - where conflicts of disposition, preference and experience often add tension. And, where the stakes are often higher - our reputations and livelihoods! Part Two in the “Embracing Uncertainty” series tackles the complexity of team dynamics in the face of uncertainty.

Any questions or particular areas of concern that you would like us to cover? Let us know.

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Written by Kassie Paschke and Vicky Peel