Embracing Uncertainty

Admit it. How often have you been willing to say, “I don’t know,” to a roomful of colleagues? Giving voice to genuine uncertainty is simply not done in most corporate corridors, whether the issue is markets, projects, competition or almost anything else. Declarative sentences (“We will . . . ”) aggressively elbow out their conditional cousins (“Depending on what we learn, we might . . . ”). How many times have you heard or even said, “Any decision is better than no decision”?

Such stout resolution, designed to move an organization forward, has its points. But three new studies suggest that true leadership often lies in knowing how to embrace uncertainty. The research suggests that when companies fail to recognize the importance of uncertainty, employees disengage from the organization’s efforts. Leaders who get the best results combine an ability to set inspiring goals and a willingness to admit that they don’t know exactly how to accomplish those goals. It turns out that people working for managers who openly express uncertainty and who seek employee input in resolving ambiguous challenges are more satisfied with their jobs, more committed to and less cynical about their organizations, and more likely to identify with the companies they work for.

One study, completed in February 2001, surveyed 1,200 executives, managers and employees over several years to gauge how they manage uncertainty. The research measured job satisfaction and employee commitment in four archetypal situations:

Status quo situations. Employees and the organization avoid uncertainty. Employees want few surprises.

Unsettling situations. Employees understand that they are dealing in uncertainty, but may be overwhelmed by a chaotic workplace that has no direction.

Stifling situations. Employees embrace uncertainty, yet the organization acts as if it had great certainty.

Dynamic situations. Both employees and organizations embrace uncertainty. As a result, the climate is dynamic, energetic and constantly changing.

According to the study’s authors, the least satisfied employees were those in status quo environments and stifling environments. Surprisingly, employees in the former were not comforted by their organizations’ traditions. Even if they were not people who typically embrace change, they recognized the need for it in the company.

“The critical challenge for leaders is to create an environment in which employees feel that uncertainty is dealt with realistically,” says study co-author Phillip Clampitt. “But it’s not easy. The tension is to allow the organization to deal with uncertainty while also providing some degree of stability.

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