Uncertainty for certain

To be a successful leader, develop an “uncertainty mindset”

Leverage a rookie mindset to collaborate better at work
To be a successful leader, develop an “uncertainty mindset”
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We’re called to summon the confidence to do hard things throughout life. But sometimes, confidence can become a liability. Some decisions made with confidence can look pretty bad in the rearview mirror.

The tech sector goes on a hiring spree and then has to retrench with thousands of layoffs. The shipping industry bets on the longevity of the breakneck pace of international trade and then has to idle ships and crews. Banks lend, interest rates rise, and they seek higher returns in longer-term investments; when anxious customers want their money, they are turned away, and banks close.

All these strategies were set with the best of intentions and good data. Leaders have to make bets and take their best, most informed shot. Confidence is the fuel that propels us forward. Yet sometimes, that confidence is rewarded with failure.

That’s why uncertain times call for an “uncertain mindset”—leaders with the maturity to recognize what they don’t know. One of my most accomplished friends and advisors says, “I’m constantly surprised at how stupid I was two weeks ago.” While that’s an endearing and healthy sentiment, imagine how much better it would be if we could remember at the moment that what we know is, at best, incomplete and often inaccurate.

Looking to uncertainty for answers

The people rewarded with promotions are often those who confidently press forward and are biased toward action. Conversely, those who hesitate are often dismissed as negative or not “on board.” But confidence without a healthy dose of skepticism will get you into hot water, even with the best of intentions.

For example, the head of sales for a global retail company was tired of her company’s supply chain issues, a constant source of frustration for fulfillment. She had tackled a similar problem in a past role, which gave her confidence that she could help. She obtained permission from the CEO to assemble a small, stealthy team to fix it. Six months later, that small group had produced nothing for its efforts. The secret was out, and the rest of the leadership team was unhappy with her. Her certainty and boldness were seen as a power grab, and her credibility was damaged.

While it isn’t always celebrated, uncertainty is a healthy quality in leaders. It enables you to step back and reflect. Then, when conditions change, you can approach them thoughtfully and steadily. Yet, it feels risky and uncomfortable for many leaders to express doubt, raise questions, or present less than a rosy picture.

3 ways to embrace uncertainty in a world that rewards confidence

Start with these three steps to practice uncertainty:

1. Leverage uncertainty to embrace deliberativeness

We are wired as human beings to avoid discomfort. A better approach is to allow yourself to be present with feelings of discomfort and evaluate them as a normal part of life and business. Allowing discomfort to be present enables you to pause and become reflective. That will help you quiet your mind to consider all the options.

I was once on the verge of signing a 10-year lease on a large office property. On the day we were to sign the lease, I hesitated. It was a big commitment. Part of me was disappointed with myself for not having the courage. But after talking again with a few people inside and outside our firm, I listened to my gut and decided to stay where we were. The cost and commitment were high, and our energy needed to be focused on profitable growth.

A year later, the pandemic struck, and we closed our office and never returned. Later, our company was acquired. We built a portfolio of clients and grew our business because we had focused on the right things. From that, I learned that I often put too much pressure on myself to do something that seems bold but may hold me back.

Many leaders struggle with how to embrace decisions not to do things. We are wired to move forward. To help you pause and honor your uncertainty, here are a few questions to ask yourself before charging ahead:

  • What if the opposite of what I believe was true?
  • What would critics tell me about this idea?
  • What is behind my belief that I should always know what to do?

2. Share your uncertainty to unite your team

Another approach is to admit that you’re uncertain and bring others into your confusion. Doing this without announcing what you “might do” or biasing them by previewing your direction is best. We’ve all heard a leader say, “Here’s what I think; what about you?” In return, that leader received head nods and agreement—a recipe for groupthink.

What if you said, “Here’s the problem I’m trying to solve; how do you see it?” Rather than shutting down the conversation, you challenge people to give you their best thinking. And that’s fun.

The CEO of our firm practices working with a “rookie mindset” and often admits she isn’t sure about a direction. People long to work for authentic leaders; nothing is more authentic than admitting when you don’t know what to do next. When she invites people into these conversations, their energy soars, and it’s joyful to be in the room. They love being treated as a thought partner. This works best when you provide people with as many details as is appropriate. That gives them the best opportunity to use critical thinking. And they are co-authoring a solution with you. Authorship is ownership. People who create the solution will get behind it.

Bringing together a community is key to problem-solving. On the other hand, silos are idea killers. When people operate in a vacuum, they don’t have the opportunity to understand, learn, and grow, and they often see each other as the enemy.

3. Use uncertainty to increase agility

Failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. But we learn over time that a plan is just a starting point. We have to be prepared to pivot. When you make uncertainty your friend, you’re more likely to stay on top of the leading indicators and know when to zig or zag. If we review the potential scenarios while forming a plan, we’re better prepared to shift when needed.

In guiding a team through scenario planning, we started with all the economic, social, governmental, as well as regulatory, environmental, political, and market conditions that could change. We then discussed which of the four scenarios was most relevant and the likelihood of each. The CEO and team said they had never felt better about moving forward with such an important initiative. They welcomed critical thinking and acknowledged that things could change. They were ready.

Maintaining a healthy dose of uncertainty lets you learn your way forward and stay agile. When you do this as a team, you unleash the power of everyone’s uncertainty to your advantage.

What if it’s time to un-mess the mess?

What if you’ve already gone too far down a road, and it’s time to pull back? What should you do to un-mess that mess?

The CEO of a construction company that had experienced the tragic loss of a crew on a job site was reluctant to allow the team to focus on it. His team grew increasingly uncomfortable when they saw that the incident was not on the agenda week after week. Finally, the CEO’s most trusted ally brought it to his attention, and his first reaction was anger. But as he reflected further, he realized that he, too, was uncertain about what to do and had been avoiding further conversations because of this. When he admitted this fear at the next meeting, the team appreciated his willingness to own up to the mess they created by not taking the time to truly examine what needed to change.

It is never too late to embrace not knowing. Every day we live, we become more aware of how big and unknowable the world is. As we mature, perhaps we can find comfort in the idea that leading is encouraging ourselves and others to learn our way forward.

Suzanne Bates is managing director of BTS, Boston, known for its groundbreaking research and practical approach to helping leaders make an impact.