The Real Key to Surviving (and Leading Fearlessly Through) Uncertainty

As a leader, you're going to have some uncertain times no matter how good you are at checking your metrics.

boss talking 1-1 with employee

Life is unpredictable. That's part of what makes it so beautiful. We can find novelty, surprise and something fresh in every day. But from a business perspective, leaders have to spend a lot of time reducing uncertainty. That's how you manage risk and hedge your bets. When there's a ton of uncertainty that you can't eliminate, though (COVID-19, I'm looking at you), how do you survive? How can you stay fearless and make good decisions when you can't predict anything?

Identify Your Desired Outcome First

Even when just about everything is up in the air, you likely still know where you want to go. You've got a concept of the positive outcome you want to achieve. So, your first step is to latch onto that. This outcome is your goal. It's the vision that can keep everyone aligned and motivated. Lay out as many action steps toward that outcome as you can. You can always adapt your plan as new data or resources come in, too.

The biggest concern really isn't which path or steps you have to take. There are many ways to reach the endzone, as the saying goes. The biggest concern — the real key to surviving unpredictability — is just getting people to commit, regardless of your chosen business outcome.

The Most Important Swap You Can Make for Success

How do you make yourself or your people commit? You take anxiety or fear and you swap it out for confidence.

On one level, this means taking a look at yourself and everyone else and identifying both strengths and previous achievements. This analysis lets you figure out exactly what everyone can contribute to successfully achieve the outcome. It clarifies specific roles and gives a sense of purpose. It also offers some proof that they've had great results before, which lets them look more objectively at your plan and their ability to do what's necessary.

You've got a variety of ways to home in on these positives. Your standard performance review, for instance, is a perfect opportunity to identify what's going well or getting done. But the best ways aren't formal — they are informal and in the moment. An example could be coaching someone at the water cooler right after they made a big presentation and letting them know you are paying attention to them and that they are doing great. Who doesn't like hearing that? The more unexpected, truthful gems of praise and gratitude you can offer, the more genuine you'll come across and the more trust you'll build.

On another level, swapping fear for confidence also means helping everyone see how they connect. Nobody's an expert at everything. If you help everyone see that they don't have to do it all because others can fill in the gaps, then reaching the objective suddenly doesn't seem so insurmountable.

This task can be tricky in a traditional work environment. Silos between teams or departments can get in the way. So, you have to be proactive about deliberately destroying them. You might be able to do this to some degree just by being choosier about your projects and selecting options that encourage more interaction. If your situation is a little more dire, you might have to take a harder look at the way your business is structured as a whole and have your management adopt a different way of operating.

Giving praise, showing gratitude and revealing connections are all related. You can point out different accomplishments or contributions from different people in a single meeting, for example. Take every opportunity you have to show that people all across the board are making real progress and doing their part. When people see that everyone is giving their best effort, there's less conflict and resentment and everyone can support each other in authentic, genuine ways.

Lastly, just be honest. The fastest way to tear down trust and heighten uncertainty is to hide what's going on or act less than forthcoming about it. By contrast, the fastest way to build trust is to share the truth, even if it's not so rosy. If you tell it like it is, then they'll believe in your integrity and start to practice what you model.

Even in Uncertainty, Amazing Results are Yours for the Taking

As a leader, you're going to have some uncertain times no matter how good you are at checking your metrics. This uncertainty doesn't mean that you can't achieve amazing things, but you do have to be a lighthouse for yourself and those around you to succeed. Focus on a clear outcome you want to see, and then build confidence so that fear is no longer a driver as you reach for that goal. It's a simple strategy, but it's one you can lean on to survive (and thrive) regardless of how unpredictable your world might be.

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