Uncertainty grips us all at some point in our lives. Perhaps it happens multiple times. It comes in many ways. When circumstances become unclear about “where this is going”, you suffer from doubt, fear, and a whole host of other emotions.
I am writing this firsthand as I and my community are experiencing the unfolding uncertainty of Hurricane Harvey. The Houston area has been impacted by what some are calling rain fall of Biblical proportions. The last reading was 52 inches in five days. For most parts of the world, that amount is a couple of years of rainfall. Houston got it in a few days.
The widespread flooding has forced thousands out of cars, homes and apartments. This event has not been partial to age, race, creed, or financial status. Anyone in the path of the flooding has been impacted. Volunteer effort has also been epic in its response. The efforts of local, state and government officials has been amazing. Thankfully the death toll has been very low, relatively speaking. With an area that is home to 6.5 million, the loss of life can be counted on both hands. This could have been much worse.
In my own neighborhood, we have not been impacted as much as the central Houston area flood water. Yet we have had our own uncertainty. My community is inside a levee district. We have the levee because of the Brazos River. The Brazos is a main artery and the largest river that slices across Texas, running from high central Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed collects a lot of rain when virtually any part of Texas gets downfall. Last year this river flooded at all-time highs. This year, we are forecast to exceed those levels by 3 feet. That’s a record you don’t want to beat.
The uncertainty of what the outcomes of these events may look like is easy to understand, but hard to comprehend. More importantly it is hard to rationalize your decisions about what to do, who to listen to, and how to go forward.
Uncertainty is by no means limited to catastrophic weather events. It can happen in all other aspects of life too. I’ve had coaching clients who are facing great uncertainty at work. The company is getting bought, sold, or reorganized. Pre and post-merger scenarios often create great uncertainty, even for the chief executives driving those changes.
Uncertainty is difficult because you suffer a wide range of possible human emotion and reaction. The list includes these:
- Faulty information/assumptions
- Bad conclusions
- Compounding effects
Fear may be the greatest of all reactions to uncertainty. The fear of the unknown. You may have your own reaction to circumstances. Yet the person right next to, perhaps your spouse, may have a totally different response.
When we take in the information that is surrounding us, we try to process it against the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Will this thing effect my safety, my security, my well-being, my livelihood, or my sense of self? If you decide YES, it does effect one or all of those things, then fear kicks in.
Fear is often associated with the fight or flight mechanisms we have. If the threat, whether real or perceived, exists, then we ultimately choose to fight to defend ourselves (literally or figuratively) or we flee from danger, running away.
If you are experiencing uncertainty, the first emotion to get in check is your fear. Though it is a natural response, the energy and emotion it consumes is detrimental to successful outcomes in the face of uncertainty.
Uncertainty creates doubt. What you may have believed to be true is now called into question when uncertainty arises. You can doubt the circumstance, the source of information, or the people around you. Worst of all is starting to doubt yourself.
If you are in management and leadership, self-doubt is a killer. You must avoid doubting yourself. When any question about you comes up because of an uncertain situation, dig deep into your soul. Pull on your character. Stay strong in your beliefs about who and what you are.
If you are not yet certain about those elements of your being, then you have an opportunity to do some work to improve. If grabbing onto core values and key principles is hard for you, then perhaps you have not yet accurately identified them. A coach can help build that base.
Uncertainty can cause a great deal of mistrust between otherwise civil partners. Friends, neighbors, or co-workers can become adversaries when uncertainty raises its ugly head. As people make decisions about the uncertainty they are facing, their conclusions may run contrary to others.
This is especially problematic between partners and co-workers. When the uncertainty causes a rift between parties, the damage in the relationship may become permanent.
There is no good reason to mistrust someone you formerly trusted during a momentary condition. Wait for the actual, final outcomes to pass judgment on the other person. Hopefully, you will find the temporary interruption in the relationship was not about trust at all. Instead it was a difference of opinions and outlooks that can be repaired with some basic collaboration and communication after the fact. Clear the air as it were.
FAULTY INFORMATION OR ASSUMPTIONS
The panic that might happen inside of uncertainty can be hungry for good information. But you have to be careful. The appetite cannot be satisfied with bad information. Check your facts.
As Reagan once said, “Trust but verify”. Check that data.
Within a team setting, information can take strange shapes. There will be those who insist they have the inside track, getting juicy info to explain the situation or even cast further fear and doubt. In my case lately, there have been those who want to yell “the levee has been breached” when in fact it has not.
It is hard to understand the desire some people may have for spreading such bad information, but they do it anyway. As a leader, you must quiet those storms and share as much good information as you can.
Nothing can confuse a situation more than bad information. Prudent people perform best with solid, reliable information and assumptions. Get the facts, then craft your ideas for desirable outcomes.
Combining all of the pieces above will usually lead to bad conclusions. Fear, doubt, lack of trust, and bad data create the perfect storm for making bad decisions. Whether these decisions are personal or professional, avoid making a bad decision by fixing the other things first.
During uncertainty, you may still make a bad decision, but you can minimize its risk and significance by eliminating the other things we talked about above.
Lastly, be cautious of compounding effects. If you period of uncertainty is prolonged, one bad decisions can compound and create more bad decisions. Stay vigilant when you are facing uncertainty. You will know when you are.
Avoid making rash choices based on fear and doubt. Dig for the truth and as much actual information as you can so that your choices are smarter, more effective ones.
As I write this piece, I sit in the midst of uncertainty. A nearby river is rising to an all-time flood level. There are real people already in jeopardy. Some are homeless, some are displaced, most are just very wet. Property damages are yet to be totalled. It may be days if not weeks before we can get accurate information about what has happened.
This is no time to make decisions based on fear and doubt. We must find trusted relationships to lean on. Anyone introducing new, inflammatory information must be questioned or ignored.
Solid leadership is required.