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Comfortable Uncertainty

Leaders who are perceived as surer of their message are more likely to be followed.  We crave certainty, particularly in uncertain times.  The more uncomfortable we are, the more likely we are to seek out certainty.  We must accept this fact as we lead changes in our organizations, because the degree of certainty of the direction decreases as the message is transmitted down the line.

Necessary Uncertainty

In most changes, the end vision isn’t something that has been done before – certainly not by this organization with these people.  As a result, there is some uncertainty whether the vision is achievable and the degree to which the end state will look like the vision.  Continuing down the same path leads to comfortable, predictable, relative certainty.  We know what to expect, and our minds like it because of that predictability.

When confronted with the awareness that we must have some degree of uncertainty in any change, it becomes incumbent upon the leaders to increase the degree of relative safety so that everyone can respond rationally to the changes rather than responding out of fear.

Unnecessary Uncertainty

While some uncertainty is unavoidable in change, much of the uncertainty isn’t of the unchangeable variety.  People are concerned with the mundane aspects of continued communication and the intent of the change.  Built on trust, the belief that the organization intends to keep everyone throughout the transition can go a long way to quelling unnecessary uncertainty.

Regular communications can also quell fears by establishing order inside of the change.  Knowing that communications will be coming monthly – even if there isn’t much new to share – reduces anxiety, because it’s one less thing that they must predict.  It also increases trust, as beliefs about communications are a part of trust.

Seeing the Uncertainty

Often, change leaders experience uncertainty on the part of those they’re leading through perceived resistance.  (See Why People Don’t Resist Change for more.)  Uncertainty creates a desire to freeze and learn more before committing to action, which is exactly the thing that can prevent success.  In change, establishing and maintaining momentum is one of the most challenging aspects.  As a result, when we see uncertainty, we must do what we can to reduce it and eliminate the fears that it brings.

Reducing Uncertainty

Regular communication is one way to reduce uncertainty, but that’s just the start.  You can address uncertainty by sharing “bright spots.”  That is, who has been successful with this approach both internally and externally.  (See Switch for more on bright spots.)  Case studies and repeated references to where the vision has been successfully implemented leads to greater confidence in the vision even if complete certainty isn’t possible.

Repeated work to translate the big change into the meaning and impact for individuals will be rewarded as their uncertainty about their role fades.  All changes come from individual changes, and in big organizational changes, individuals are often uncertain what changes will be asked of them.

Safety Nets

Finally, if you want people to get comfortable with uncertainty, they’ve got to be given a set of safe possibilities.  Even if the vision isn’t certain, where are some of the places that the organization or they themselves can land that will be okay?  In the end, getting comfortable with uncertainty means reducing it to an acceptable level, and that level is different for every individual.

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