6 Steps to Mastering Uncertainty

Lately I have been noodling on the phenomenon of "the blame game" in the workplace--blinding us to larger system dynamics at work. Usually it looks something like this:

Big Boss: Whoa! Who the hell let this happen? Get your manager in here so we can set this straight!

Employee: Um. Well I think it may be more complicated than that, we didn't...

Big Boss: Complicated? Are you kidding me? Everyone knows we don't do it that way. What's the problem with your manager, doesn't she have common sense? I rely on her to behave as a professional. That's what she's paid for, right?

Employee: Well, maybe we can debrief this at our next team meeting...we haven't had one for a few months...(he slowly backs out of the office, and then runs down the hall).

What's a big boss to do? And how about that poor employee? He's stuck in the middle, trying to duck and cover, influence the big boss, and not push his colleague under the bus! Where's the voice of the accused? Poor manager has been already been tried and convicted without due process. Doesn't anybody get it around here?

Well, folks, most of us don't get it. In the whirlwind of our every day lives, we hesitate to face the notion that our organizations are human systems rife with paradox, complexity and dilemma. In his book, Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life (Berrett-Koehler 2008), Barry Oshry contends that those at the top, in the middle and at at the bottom all suffer from the illusion of certainty in organizational life. And, according to Oshry, uncertainty can lead to alienation, alienation then leads to polarization and polarization grows more uncertainty. So how to break through? Oshry offers 6 steps to mastering uncertainty:

1. Accept Uncertainty. All systems (family, religious, political...) are turbulent. No organization can live up to the structures and systems they construct to provide the illusion of certainty. 

2. Look for Possibilities. Remember the power of imagination? Well, dust off your 2nd grade self and begin to look for possibilities! We are wired for imagination, and when we use it, thoughts and actions shift from tapped-out to tuned-in.

3. Avoid Polarization. Put yourself in check. Are you attached to positions? Do you suffer from either/or thinking? Rigid thinking and fixed positions lead to tension, divisiveness and limit possibility.

4. Hold Possibilities Up to the Light. View possibilities from all sides---the upsides, the downsides, the unintended consequences. Remember, nothing is certain---only uncertainty, and that demands a thorough analysis.

5. Use Your Flexibiity. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be held hostage by the tensions and frustrations that get played out during "events" like the scenario above. There are more powerful system forces at work here! Where can we find points of leverage to work together rather than apart? Is there an opening? Find it and create the space for naming and noticing the complexity and uncertainty of which we are a part.

6. Be A Force. Ask, "What's missing in our group?" "How might I be a force to fill the gap?" By responding to the needs of the system we grow the issue bigger than hierarchies and personality conflicts.

May the force be with you as you break through to embrace uncertainty and tune-in to how you can best unlock the mystery...

Mary McGuinness, M.Ed., PCC is a career transition and shift-it coach based in Chicago, IL USA.
Mary uses visual coaching and design-thinking techniques and practices to accompany her clients on a journey of self-discovery that results in creative solutions, faster results, and happier, more fulfilling careers.  

Mary McGuinness