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How leaders can unwrap the gift of uncertainty

Uncertainty doesn't have to be a bad thing, but we must develop the habit. Here's how.

5 min read


How leaders can unwrap the gift of uncertainty

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Chuck Wisner.

This stressful pandemic has highlighted our aversion to uncertainty. However, a recent Boston Globe article on uncertainty lays out the secret gifts that it offers. Uncertainty is a hot topic for cognitive science and psychology, both of which explore the ways our fears of not-knowing can limit our thinking and minimize our tolerance for change and diversity.

Significant philosophical shifts during the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment began a much-needed quest for certainty. Thinkers of those eras rejected the religious ideology of the Middle Ages and gravitated toward rationalism. New philosophies embraced humans’ intellectual capacity to gain knowledge through experience and logic, but that pursuit came at a price. Over time, our craving for answers quashed the benefits of uncertainty, and that need for answers has permeated the business world and cultures at large.

When I teach transformational leadership programs, one concept always hits participants right between the eyes: the knower-versus-learner dynamic. From elementary school to the boardroom, we’re encouraged to be knowers, and we’re rewarded for having the answer. This pattern can trap us, and the words “I don’t know” never cross the lips of the “knowers.” 

“Learners,” on the other hand, do not have a problem admitting they don’t have all the answers. Learners are blessed with the humility and curiosity necessary for discovery. Leaders should especially pay heed to this distinction, but it’s worthy of everyone’s attention.

A reporter recently asked Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response team, about a specific issue regarding the vaccine rollout. Slavitt acknowledged the question, admitted he didn’t know the answer, but pledged to find out and report back. What a refreshing response! 

Who doesn’t love to have the answers? Who doesn’t want to have the right solution to a sticky problem? In conversations, we often cling to what we know and rush to decisions because we’re obsessed with answers. Unfortunately, this unconscious habit often breeds arrogance.

The antidote is to adopt a learner’s mindset and re-consider the value of good questions. Humble, inquisitive questions promote mutual understanding and learning. 

That’s easier said than done, though. Our emotions and triggers often get in the way, so practice is essential for getting it right. 

Here are 5 ways to practice embracing uncertainty

1. Check your attitude at the door before you go into a meeting or a challenging conversation. If you’re entering with guns blazing or full of fear, stop, take a breath, and remind yourself that your opinion is just one of many. Wherever you are, you will find people ready to defend their position as the answer.

Take note of the things that cause you to be rigid, closed-minded or anxious. Practice shifting your attitude by offering and holding your opinions lightly and demonstrating a willingness to change your mind.

2. Investigate your emotions and your negative judgments. Our emotions and opinions reflect our desires, goals, concerns and standards. Take time to check out the thinking behind your feelings or positions. What thoughts and beliefs are keeping you attached to your opinion? What concerns are keeping you up at night? With a bit of investigation, you can unearth legitimate concerns that make for productive conversations.

Rather than hoisting your unchecked opinions on others — “Our schedule is totally messed up!” — listen first. That’s especially true for leaders. And when speaking, reveal your thinking: Try saying something like, “I’m concerned that we’re going to run out of time,” or “By my measure, we’ve missed our targets.” Your tone and thoughtfulness can dramatically shift the tenor of a conversation.

3. Enter into conversations collaboratively. The dysfunctional pattern of having to have the answer turns inquiries into inquisitions. The ways you advocate and inquire are transformed when you hold your opinions more lightly and process your emotions and negative judgments. The delicate dance of advocacy and inquiry opens minds and promotes mutual learning.

4. Don’t overlook brainstorming creative conversations. Our quest for answers can diminish our imagination. Judgments like “We can’t do that” or “That will never work” deaden discussions. Conversely, when participants in meetings adopt a learning stance, a collective creativity emerges. 

5. Slow down the decision-making process. More often than not, decisions are driven by the voice with the most authority. When Roberta, the boss, says, “OK, maybe we should redo the presentation for Monday,” voilà, the unhappy team works over the weekend. That rush to action is often misguided and disjointed, leaving team collaboration and co-creativity in the dust.

Roberta robbed herself of her team’s varied perspectives, and the rush to action disengaged her from her team. A leader who is mindful of these patterns can purposefully make a small investment in time so conversations have space to breathe and collaboration can work its magic. 

By purposefully executing these five steps, you and your colleagues can minimize groupthink and experience the thrill of getting smart together. This kind of team deliberation is highly engaging and will most likely lead to wiser decisions. With practice, you will be a less judgmental, more confident, and more thoughtful colleague.


Chuck Wisner is a sought-after strategic thinker, advisor, and teacher in the areas of organizational strategy, human dynamics, communication, and leadership excellence. He is currently working as an adviser with leaders and their teams at major technology companies in the US, as well as other Fortune 200 companies and nonprofit institutions. Connect with Wisner on LinkedIn.

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