Learn to Manage Uncertainty

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You’re a leader.

And you’re standing warily in front of an amusement park entrance, your spouse and two children in tow.

Or you could be at work, standing there with your direct reports, collaborative teams, departments, divisions or entire executive management team in tow.

Or you could be standing there with your entire company in tow.

What to do?  The park is deceiving because you think it’s something you know well, something that’s unchanging, stable.  You’ve been coming here since you were a child.  But the fact is, the park changes every year:  new rides are launched, old ones dismantled, shows come and go, food courts evolve, the park expands, the parking area moves, etc.

When most people go to the park, they cut to the right, the dominant direction of travel.  They’ll make their way around the park with everyone else, bumping elbows, getting cut off by rogue children and teenagers, and sweating it out in the lines with screaming children and change-resistant spouses.  Or screaming employees and change-resistant colleagues.

Regardless, it all starts with yourself, the personal leadership of you and your ability to manage and thrive in ambiguity.

That’s the world we live in today – one of constant change and uncertainty.  Of course the amusement park is only a metaphor, albeit a useful one: you either jump in line to ride the crazy rides or you don’t. Have you ever cut to the left?

The latest issue of Chief Learning Officer includes an article titled Ambiguity Leadership: It’s OK to Be Uncertain, which I highly recommend.  The article outlines Three Tenets of Mastering the Unknown.

Mastering uncertainty is learned over time, and the skills to do it should be included in the curriculum of leadership development initiatives. Here are three simple coaching suggestions.

  1. Learn to make a decision with incomplete information. Take a decision you would normally agonize over and, instead, make this decision based only on what you know now. Write it down and seal it in an envelope. Then, go through the normal cycle time of decision-making. After the normal decision-making process is complete, get out the sealed decision and compare and contrast. Would you have made the same decision? Could you have made the decision yourself at the earlier stage and saved energy, time and money?
  2. Read up. Train your mind to be fluid and attuned to faint signals of impending change. Uncertainty is the ocean on which we sail. Studying up is a way of understanding that ocean and coming to terms with the inevitability of ambiguity.
  3. Examine five ideas or trends that you know nothing about, but that will affect the business in three to five years. Consider how they may or may not affect your products, services and jobs. Discuss how you can prepare for them.

I still get excited when I go to an amusement park.  Do you?  Prior to going I read up on the latest rides and attractions, and I’m as giddy as a schoolboy, ready to run ragged into the unknown and help guide family and firm along the way.

Learn to manage uncertainty; be giddy and cut to the left.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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Kevin W. Grossman

Kevin W. Grossman

Kevin W. Grossman is the Talent Board Vice-President responsible for all aspects of the Candidate Expe-rience Awards program and other Talent Board activities for North America. He also produces and hosts the new Reach West Radio where each week he talks with his guests about their effectual stretch and the impact it makes in the worlds of work and life. Kevin co-founded and co-hosted the highly popular weekly TalentCulture #TChat with Meghan M. Biro for over five years. A certified Talent Acquisition Strategist (TAS) and Human Capital Strategist (HCS) by HCI, Kevin has over 17 years of domain expertise and familiarity with the HR and recruiting technology marketplace and remains a top social influencer in leadership, human resources, talent management and recruiting. He’s been a prolific "HR business" blogger and writer since 2004 and his first business book titled Tech Job Hunt Handbook was released in December 2012 from Apress.


  1. Nice Post! Surely managing uncertain times is a challenge. I came across a video post “zones of uncertainty” by Vineet Nayar. This might interest you.

  2. Wonderful post Kevin.

    I love the amusement park as a metaphor. There’s nothing more exciting than learning about a new ride that can take you on an adventure unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before….Harry Potter 😉

    It can also be disappointing when you realize that one of your favorite childhood rides was dismantled to make room for this new, more innovative and surely more profitable venture.

    Having an open mind, a spirit of adventure and an understanding that we are, and always will be, in a constant state of change makes us more adaptable in times of greater uncertainty.

    While it’s natural to go through a period of mourning for the old, it’s also healthy to jump right in line for the new, with anticipation and excitement for what lies ahead. After all, it only adds to our expanding photo album of memories and life experiences.

    The coaching suggestions are terrific take-aways as well. Thank you for sharing them.

    I also enjoyed the story Michael shared about Vineet’s studies in the Himalayas and the accompanying metaphor of the drift wood and the stone.

    Thanks for writing this post and the reminder to cut to the left every once in a while.

    Let’s go see what lies beyond the mountains!


  3. Charee, thank you for the comments! If you really work on mindful presence and owning each moment, then it helps to regulate negative reactivity when everything goes to hell in a hand basket.

    I’m all about carrying that ambiguity like a football and cutting left. (Hey, it’s NFL draft time.)

  4. Very timely post. Have had several discussions this week about this very topic: how do you hold the space for ambiguity while still maintaining confidence and momentum? (ambiguity very disabling for some)

    One part that is also interesting to note is how different people in an org handle ambiguity. As a leader, sometimes it is your job to include them in the unknown. “We are all in this together”. For some personality types, however, that ambiguity is disabling. As leaders, how does one balance transparency about this ambiguity and yet confidence that we are all on the right path?

  5. It’s called faith. 😉

    Seriously, thank you for your comment and question, Kendall. Leaders who “roll” with the ambiguity are usually confident and strong leaders who forge ahead with decisions, right or wrong. And when wrong learn and adapt quickly to right the wrong.

  6. Out of all the resources to manage a business enterprise, human resource is probably the most unpredictable. It has an element of behavioral uncertainty. Most leaders have learned to tackle financially ambiguous situations & have intuitive wisdom to take decisions in the absence of adequate data. But true leadership is the understanding of workforce response during periods of unforeseen crisis. You will be able to tackle the crisis if your people have not collapsed. This can happen only if the leaders have a clear focus.
    Kevin has depicted the amusement park of business & its crazy rides in a fantastic manner. The ambiguity has been simplified. What an inspiration indeed to learn ‘How to manage uncertainty’ !

  7. Kevin, This is an excellent post. I love the title. Learning to manage uncertainty may be the most important learning we can do today.

    The metaphor you use – the amusement park – is masterful. Amusement parks are fun, exciting, full of anticipation, but can change often and be scary for some. You never know what you’ll see around the next corner. Like the world we live in today.

    Your three points are insightful:
    – Make decisions with incomplete information. (Go with gut instinct and use common sense.)
    – Read up. (Absolutely, understand trends and swim with the current.)
    – Yes, find ideas/trends that have nothing do to with your business and study/follow them. (Many times this leads to innovation in your own business.)

    I also like amusement parks. My favorite rides are big roller coasters: Speed, excitement and change around ever turn.

    Best, Mike

  8. Thanks Mike. If one thing is certain it is that things will change. This is a valuable resource particularly for human resource professionals who are in the business of people, one of the least consistent businesses around. I also think this would be a great read for someone who was downsized. Viewing change as an exciting opportunity makes all the difference in what comes your way in the future. Thanks again!

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