OK, let’s get honest about something almost everyone struggles with in business.
And, let’s face it, it’s a natural human instinct to strive for familiarity when something feels uncertain or not known.
Our brains are hardwired to protect us from risk and danger, so we often discard the idea in favour of something that feels familiar. Safer.
As a result, we – mistakenly – believe we are protected from failure and, therefore, the essential leadership quality required for growth, that of vulnerability.
But here’s the big problem with uncertainty, especially in business.
If we continually avoid the “what ifs”, it can dramatically affect our capacity to innovate, not to mention erode our ability to succeed in today’s fast-moving world.
As a coach and mentor, I often talk about the importance of letting go of total certainty, and offer a reframe:
What might be possible if I moved beyond the known zone?
I know this is no easy feat to overcome. We’re human, after all.
But I can offer a few simple strategies that have had a positive effect with many of my clients, and for myself.
Here are a few quick tips:
Try to replace uncertainty with curiosity
When you catch yourself regularly avoiding uncertainty in your business, it may be a cognitive “zero risk” bias not necessarily based on hard fact. In other words, your brain might be playing a (well-meaning) trick on you.
Past experiences – good, bad or indifferent – will not always be the blueprint for the future, but if you get stuck in this space it can stifle innovation.
Instead, I suggest replacing that feeling with the gentle, unfolding process of curiosity.
Brené Brown, PhD, the author of Daring Greatly, refers to a study published in the journal Neuron suggesting that the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information.
But because it also involves uncertainty and vulnerability, it can feel very uncomfortable. So we try to escape it any way we can.
“Sometimes we even settle for misinformation or bad news over not knowing,” she says.
Yet Brown also says it is possible to thrive amid uncertainty.
“There are no guarantees when we step into the unknown. But these periods of discomfort can give rise to life’s most important adventures,” she says.
Pay attention to auto-pilot reactions
If you frequently feel stuck in circular or knee-jerk thought patterns over what may (or may not) happen, the truth is that it might be you, not the decision or change itself.
As much as we try to do things differently, we often get locked into certain ways of thinking, being and doing in our business.
And these ‘ways’ may not be the best, or most productive.
But they’re often the safest, easiest and most reassuringly predictable – even if the outcomes aren’t ideal.
Welcome to the ‘known zone’!
The known zone is rife in global corporates, through to start-ups. No business is immune.
But the good news is we can change, simply by tuning into our thought patterns – conscious and unconscious – that may be preventing us from trying something new, and therefore innovating and growing.
Replace your automatically ‘safe’ responses with being a little more open to possibility.
Not despite the unknown, but alongside it.
If you’re a CEO or manager, lead by example.
Question. Reflect. Create. Admit your limits. Seek multiple perspectives to enrich options.
I can guarantee good things are waiting on the other side.
Uncertainty blossoms when we’re stressed, overworked and trapped in the “doing in” our business, not the “being on”. So it’s critical to set aside time for quiet reflection to recharge the soft-skills that fuel good decision making, like intuition, empathy and self-awareness.
I suggest to many of my clients that they get up 30 minutes earlier – not rocket science, obviously – but you’d be surprised by how many of us wake up to an alarm, lie in bed scrolling a screen, then start the day feeling rushed before we’ve even walked out the door.
So if you decide to rise earlier, use that time wisely. Put down the phone, go for a walk, or simply enjoy a few moments of stillness to stretch and breathe. Set your intention for the day ahead.
Make the first meeting of the day with yourself.
I also suggest to CEOs and managers that their business should be given the permission and freedom to think, not just ‘do’.
All businesses need quiet spaces, a culture of idea-generation and sharing (minus the fear of reprehension) and plenty of structured and unstructured time to simply ponder, share and envision without judgement.
It’s all a fundamental to innovation, which thrives when we let go of the need to be in control of outcomes.
Are you in business that values an action-oriented “just get stuff done” attitude and culture? Or are your people given the time and space to slow down, think and question? If not, that’s exactly what you’ll eventually get: just stuff.
Nurture a trusted network
Another step is to build a positive, grounded network for when you might be twisting into the fear of the unknown by default.
I’m talking about a trusted person (or group) you can draw upon for the occasional no-nonsense chat to quickly dissolve that, so you can instead focus on what might be possible, not what you may believe is inevitable.
Uncertainty can send us into patterns of a ‘scarcity’ mindset and, as humans, we can default into replacing unknown with old data – which is usually far worse than reality.
Tap into your resilience
Remember that time you did that last big thing in your business? And perhaps it seemed risky but it worked out better than you hoped or planned? And now you look back – mentally high-fiving yourself – and you think: “Wow. I’m glad I tried that.”
And remember the other big thing? The thing that you thought was going to be brilliant. And it didn’t work out, even remotely? You crashed, perhaps spectacularly. But you’re still here. And I’m guessing you have a few words of wisdom to share about the experience.
Most of us have made thrillingly uncertain business decisions before, and – with not by luck but with intention– we will make them again.
It’s easy to forget – whatever the outcome – that we are going to be OK, and wiser, if (and only if) we allow ourselves to grow and learn from each new experience.
Accept all possibilities, and welcome yourself to the learning zone
If a colleague came to you asking for 100% certainty that a new business idea was going to unfold exactly the way they’d planned, would you tell them “absolutely yes?”
Probably not. So why would you put the same pressure on yourself, or your team?
Accepting that things are likely to not unfold exactly as planned is a great defence against your inner innovation killer.
Step intentionally into the unknown – because that is where you are going to learn and grow.
Remember your ‘why’
In her wonderful book, Becoming, Michelle Obama describes how she got so good at playing the piano by familiarising herself with the middle C key and knowing that was where she had to start from.
And anyone who follows Foundher.co over on Instagram will know I talk about returning to the “middle” a lot. I like to think of this as your ‘why’ – the core purpose and reason for doing what you do.
And in times of uncertainty – amidst the high notes and low notes – it will guide you back and lead you forward, at the same time.
Running or leading a business is full of uncertainty and yet we often feel the need to be 100% sure of the outcomes.
Embracing uncertainty – at least some of the time – will enable you to hit your growth edge, your learning zone, think more innovatively, try new things and grow your business and yourself.
We all feel afraid of the unknown sometimes.
But think about what you might be missing if you never embrace it.
Over to you.
What are your thoughts on uncertainty, particularly in business? Have you overcome it, or are you a work in progress? Please add your comments below, I’d love to know your thoughts.