Uncertainty is Not the Problem

We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.

We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.

There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling

One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if uncertainty about what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.

Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!

High Stakes Plus Lack of Control

Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.

I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.

What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?

One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.

Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action

But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.

It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.

If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.

Scientist or Philosopher, The Dubious Distinction

Adam Grant published a new book. I published a new book too. Grant is a best-selling author, a top TED talker, and a highly regarded professor of organizational psychology at The Wharton School. I’m fairly popular with dozens of clients and colleagues.

Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Daniel Kahneman, and Brené Brown enthusiastically endorse Grant’s new book. I can report that my sister Ann purchased a copy of my new book for each of her adult kids.

Grant’s book, Think Again, is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. My book, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do, is about discovering creativity and compassion in a time of chaos. We both believe that the future belongs to people who have the mental flexibility to think about how they think and the emotional maturity to question their conclusions and beliefs.

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between how each of us describe our recommended model of better thinking. Grant suggests we think more like scientists. Here’s what Grant wrote about thinking in what he calls scientist mode:

When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles… [Thinking like a scientist] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 25.

I recommend that we think more like philosophers. Here’s what I wrote about thinking like a philosopher:

Training in philosophy prepares you to question assumptions, including your own… It’s reassuring to hold on to beliefs even if they no longer serve us, especially core beliefs that shape our identity. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame the change rather than our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause for philosophically detached reflection, we not only end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness, we get stuck in our thinking.

Jay G. Cone, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do: Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos (Dallas: Unstuck Minds Media, 2021), 57-58.

As I read Grant’s book, I thought about the difference between the scientist and the philosopher. Allow me to experiment with a distinction (adopting a scientist’s mindset) that I’ve been considering. I welcome your reactions. It seems to me that to the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally.

To the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally

I’m not saying that scientists want to eliminate doubt, it’s not an enemy to be vanquished. The scientist views doubt as a worthy adversary. An adversary that deserves respect. Scientific doubt spurs better answers. The philosopher hangs out with doubt. Philosophical doubt spurs better questions.

When it comes to finding a vaccine against Covid-19, I’m on team scientist. When it comes to finding a way to help people think through the ethics of vaccine distribution, I suggest inviting some philosophers to the conversation.

Practically speaking, it’s probably a distinction without a difference. Whether we think more like a scientists or more like philosophers, we can all benefit from thinking better and connecting better so the world becomes more creative and compassionate.

Introducing SCAN; How to Spot the Hidden Complexities that Keep Us Stuck

When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.

The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner

We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.

We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.

SCAN

Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.

SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs

  • Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
  • Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
  • Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
  • Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.

In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.

The horizontal dimension differentiates between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, changes in our context and the needs of others happen without our intervention.

For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.

The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.

Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.

Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings

Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.

Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.

Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.

Did 2020 alter your perspective on what it takes to be a good leader? So…what does that say about your competency model?

Let’s start with a quiz. Review the two descriptions below. One is from a global executive competency model1. The other is from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) breed standard for an Australian Shepherd Dog.

Click on the description if you need to know which is which.

Speaking of the AKC, our family has always loved watching the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving. Even though our grown daughters did not travel home for Thanksgiving this year, we all still watched the dog show. When our daughters were growing up, we had a Welsh Corgi named Milo. We still get very excited during the part of the show when it’s time to judge the herding group. To this day we all root for the Pembroke Corgi.

Sometimes I think those of us who work in leadership development are jealous of the dog show judges. We wish we had a set of agreed upon standards for judging leaders. If only we could clarify and align on an ideal, we would know whom to promote and we would know where to focus our training efforts.

Of course, describing effective leadership is nothing like describing the ideal Australian Shepherd. Leadership is a relationship not a set of characteristics. Like parenting, what counts as good leadership varies with the situation and the nature of the people you care for.

Good leaders are neither bred nor manufactured. Still, we just can’t seem to shake the production mindset when we think about the performance of leaders. We can’t help thinking that the behaviors and output of a leader should be held up against some standard.

From Models to Modes

The pandemic has brought suffering and devastation, it has also shaken loose a lot of foundational assumptions. We can get work done even when we can’t convene in an office. Classrooms aren’t the only place public education can happen. And maybe we’re starting to realize that the leadership our organizations need doesn’t conform to a static model.

Many of our clients are focused on accelerating the readiness of high-potential managers for senior leadership roles. I understand the dilemma. Given the vast number of baby boomers getting ready for retirement, organizations need to prepare promotable replacements for many of their most experienced leaders. Consequently, a select group of middle managers will soon be moving into executive roles having had much less experience than their predecessors.

While I appreciate the challenge of filling key vacancies, I believe it’s time for us to put away our measuring sticks when thinking about developing organizational leadership. If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

We rely too much on our leadership competency models. Let’s start to think more systemically about the modes of leadership appropriate to our times, our needs, and our missions. When technology disrupts our markets, we might benefit from a shift to an innovation leadership mode. When unexpected change forces us to work in unfamiliar ways, we might need a shift to an empathetic leadership mode.

We can’t expect leaders to live up to an impossible set of standards. We can, however, redesign our organizations so we can access the leadership mode we need given our circumstances and our goals. What if our leadership modes, rather than our organizational charts determined who becomes more influential and who becomes less influential? Sometimes we need General George Patton, and sometimes we need Rosa Parks.

Our Corgi Milo suffered from serious skin allergies. He was on a variety of medications including monthly allergy shots, which he begrudgingly accepted because he knew it meant a stick of string cheese afterword. Milo was gentle and lethargic. He had a few frisky years when we first rescued him, but for most of his life with us he was never really up for herding anything.

The AKC standard for Pembroke Welsh Corgis ends with a description of the ideal breed temperament, “Outlook bold, but kindly. Never shy or vicious. The judge shall dismiss from the ring any Pembroke Welsh Corgi that is excessively shy2.” Milo never stood a chance at the National Dog Show, but he was the ideal companion when we lived in a raucous, cluttered house full of energetic kids.

  1. McCall, M., & Hollenbeck, G. (2002). Developing global executives: The lessons of international experience. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing
  2. American Kennel Club (1993). Official Standard of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Page 3. Retrieved from: https://images.akc.org/pdf/breeds/standards/PembrokeWelshCorgi.pdf