Helping a coachee or mentee manage uncertainty

by Professor David Clutterbuck

Much as humans generally crave certainty, we have to live with constant uncertainty. In organizations, uncertain comes in two kinds: prediction uncertainty and decision uncertainty. Prediction uncertainty comes from operating in a VUCA environment, where we know that “best guesses” may turn out badly wrong, because we don’t have enough information, because of constant change and because there may be important factors we simply aren’t aware of. Decision uncertainty occurs when we cannot make our own plans, because these are dependent upon others within a chain. (When the chain becomes a loop, with each party dependent on the others, it is even harder!)

There is no simple remedy for either of these forms of uncertainty. The best we can do is be highly flexible in responding to change and to monitor closely the boundaries of certainty and uncertainty. A simple way to approach the latter is to categorise it into four areas:

  • Certainty – what we are reasonably or very sure about and can therefore plan for
  • Partial certainty – high probabilities, but with some risk factors to any prediction, for which we can plan with contingencies and multiple scenarios
  • Uncertainty – what we have limited control over and need rapid reaction plans for
  • Chaos – what we can’t predict or plan for, and so for which we need to have very strong radar

These categories apply to organizations, teams and individuals. A coach or mentor can help clients think through what lies in each category, how appropriate their current response is, and how they can improve their responses. Two key questions are:

  • What process changes do you need to make?
  • What mindset changes do you need to make?

Process and mindset changes are typically both required in a robust approach to managing uncertainty. Process changes relate to how you gather and validate information, but also to how you use that information to make decisions. Critical questions here are:

  • How can you make better, faster decisions, even when you have less certain data?
  • How can you persuade others to do so?
  • How can data analytics shift issues up the ladder from chaos towards certainty?
  • When is it right to decide not to decide?

Mindset changes relate to how we perceive uncertainty in the first place. Our research into high performing teams international reveals a common characteristic in that they welcome and are highly resilient to change. The key to this seems to be how they view change – as an opportunity, rather than as a threat. It’s normal for people to see the downsides of disruptive change before the positives. For example, early studies of the likely impact of Artificial Intelligence forecast massive job losses in the developed economies. Just a few years later, studies indicate that there will instead be more, different jobs created than lost.

Useful issues the coach or mentor can explore with them include:

  • What opportunities can you see in the uncertainties you are aware of?
  • What positive outcomes can you envisage from creating uncertainty? (That is being the disruptor, not the disrupted?)
  • How can you increase your change resilience?

It’s helpful to bear in mind that fear blunts our creativity. Coaching or mentoring can help the learner replace fear of change with curiosity about change, by asking questions, such as:

  • What are your greatest hopes for the outcomes of this current uncertainty?
  • What can you do, alone or with others, to make those hopes more likely outcomes?
  • How do you want to be seen in relation to the changes happening? (A blocker, a supporter, or “the calming voice of reason”?)
  • How much more effective would you be, if you chose not to worry about what might happen?

Being the calming voice of reason may be healthiest for both the team, or the organisation and for the coachee / mentee.  Letting go of their fears and choosing not to worry (for example, by making contingency plans for worst case scenarios) allows them to take a balanced view of the threats and opportunities, they can emerge with a reputation for both enabling change to happen and reducing its negative effects, both during and after the period of uncertainty. So, they enhance their own reputation and at the same time look after their health by worrying less.