Why is uncertainty seen as the enemy? The number of leaders who seek control and avoid uncertainty, fascinates me. I enjoy working with many leaders in diverse organisations all with very different personalities and approaches to leadership but it is the leaders who embrace ambiguity and uncertainty who leap out to me as effective leaders.
There seems to be an organisational conspiracy to perpetuate this need for control, “If we plan, follow process and mitigate risk, then we will be ok”. Although there is nothing wrong with planning, in fact, it is encouraged but expecting any plan to work perfectly is laughable.
Helmuth von Moltke, a German Military Strategist coined the phrase ” No battle plan survives the contact with the enemy”. So we have to be agile and be able to adapt and change our approach.
For over sixty years researchers have been interested in what makes some people more able to tolerate uncertainty than others. A number of the earlier psychological researchers such as Frankl-Brunswik and Budner put it down to differences in personality. More recently researchers have been looking at the role that dopamine receptors play in our ability to seek uncertainty and novelty or seek to maintain the status quo. People with lower numbers of dopamine receptors seek out more novelty and uncertainty whereas those with higher numbers of dopamine receptors find it difficult to tolerate change or uncertainty. There is obviously more work to do to really understand the neuroscience behind uncertainty however researchers and practitioners are beginning to identify the links between effective leadership and being able to operate in uncertainty and it’s ‘big sister’ ambiguity.
A paper by Randall White and Sandra Shullman ‘Build Leadership’s Tolerance for Ambiguity’ explains;
” Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity”.
They have identified a number of observable traits that are present in leaders able to thrive in uncertainty;
Mystery as a motivating factor – people who seek out situations where they don’t know the answer
Undaunted by risk – being able to make decisions with incomplete information
Sensitive to faint signals - being able to scan for patterns and context set for their teams
Tenacity - leaders who do not shy away from failure, they stay the course.
Creating excitement – enthusing others around them
Flexibility – able to change direction and their minds
Simplifying - taking the complex and communicating it simply
Focus – knowing what to focus on at the right time.
David Wilkinson, author of the Ambiguity Advantage which is based on researching leaders in the UK he states;
” It should be clear by now that moments of the most intense fear , the moments when there appear to be huge threats all around, when ambiguity is at its highest, when we know little and understand less, these are moments of most potential for moving into the new world and taking advantage”.
Indeed uncertainty isn’t the enemy, it may feel uncomfortable and even stressful but through uncertainty can come many possibilities for change, growth and development.
Clare is currently researching the impact of Uncertainty and Ambiguity on Leadership Effectiveness for her Doctoral Thesis.
High risk and ambiguous situations – perhaps I mean mining or banking, in fact there are great leadership lessons for corporate leaders from the fire service. These leaders face highly dangerous and ambiguous environments and have to make life and death decisions quickly and under pressure. So what can corporate leaders learn from leaders in high reliability organisations?
Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott were curious and conducted exploratory research in 2010 on the Fire Service in the US. The researchers collected near-miss reports from stations across the US and analysed the results for key themes and patterns. This was an inductive process and they were able to identify a number of strategies that these leaders used effectively in highly ambiguous and dangerous situations.
They found that leaders were able to organise the ambiguity through;
Framing - leaders were able to make sense of the environment for others and provide direction setting and a degree of knowledge
Heedful interrelating - leaders were able to communicate with others by clear verbal communication, along with role modelling desired behaviours and role acting which is behaving in alignment with role expectations. Another key component was trust.
Adjusting – the ability to rapidly adjust behaviours due to changing conditions
The researchers found that this mixture of behaviours, actions and processes were linked to managing high risk situations with lower numbers of injuries or casualties. When there were gaps in these components the injury rate increased.
Future leaders need to be able to lead confidently in ambiguous and complex situations where they may not know all the answers. They would do well to reflect on the leadership strategies of these firefighters.
Organizing Ambiguity: A grounded theory of leadership and sensemaking within dangerous contexts by Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott, Organizational Science, University of North Carolina – 2010 Military Pyschology
Organisations invest heavily in their high potentials with training, coaching and mentoring often offered to prepare them for bigger roles. But what does a high potential leader look like? Strangely enough according to a research paper called ‘Learning Agility: a construct whose time has come’, high performance is not necessarily a good predictor of future success. In fact, success in a current role does not guarantee success in a different role. So what does? Researchers have been looking at this critical question and discovered that an individual’s learning agility is a much better predictor of success especially where a leader is transitioning from a known role to an unknown or novel role.
The authors go on to claim that ‘ The assessment of learning agility, we believe, will likely become a critical component of talent management practices in most organisations during this decade’.
Learning agility is ‘ the willingness and ability to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first time conditions.’
In another piece of research entitled ‘ Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential’ the authors hypothesized that high potentials with a higher level of learning agility would perform better once they had been promoted. Indeed this hypothesis was borne out, the more successful leaders, once they had been promoted did indeed score higher levels of learning agility.
In FYI for Learning Agility, the authors highlight four types of learning agility;
Mental agility – they are excellent critical thinkers who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully and make fresh connections.
People agility – they know themselves very well and can readily deal with a wide variety of people and tough situations.
Change agility – they are curious, like to experiment and can effectively deal with the discomfort of change.
Results agility – they deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams; they exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
And leaders high in learning agility would;
Seek and have more experiences to learn from
Enjoy complex first time problems and challenges associated with new experiences
Get more out of these experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them.
Perform well because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire.
So a high potential is someone who is a high learner, able to adapt, change and grow in ambiguous situations. So how do you spot those high in learning agility? There are assessment tools available on the market, however the research shows that a boss is more likely than peers or direct reports to identify high learners.
The need to identify high potentials is a critical one for organisations and it is worth thinking about how you are assessing these leaders. As a practitioner in the Leadership and Development field I am often asked to work with a group of leaders that have been identified by their level in the organisation, performance or personality and company fit. Let’s change the conversation and start to talk about potential in terms of an individuals ability to learn, adapt and grow.
Learning Agility; a construct whose time has come – by Kenneth De Meuse , Guangrong Dai , George Hallenbeck 2010 Consulting Pysch Journal
Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential – by Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo – Human Resource Planning
FYI for Learning Agility – published by Korn/Ferry International 2010
It seems quite ridiculous how we measure ourselves against others. Our status can be based on our desk next to a window, a parking bay and more recently just how many back to back meetings we have in a day and how many emails lie unopened in our over-stuffed inbox.
It’s not unusual to great someone with a “hello, how are you?” only to be met with “Fine, I’m really busy”. It has almost become unacceptable to have time in the day to think, bouncing from meeting to meeting. And yes I have heard stories of clients who fill their diary so full that not only do they not eat but don’t get chance for a loo break!!
So we have a problem that is based in a cultural belief that our importance and relevance is determined by this frenetic pace. The only problem with this is our brain really doesn’t respond well to this battering of data and stimulation. Leaders are generally not employed for their good looks – they are employed for their brains, their ability to think, decide, plan, innovate, empathise and engage – all these actions are effortful and an overloaded or stressed brain would struggle to do any of these tasks effectively. We become cognitively overloaded and our executive functioning, performed by our prefrontal cortex is impaired. Not only do we not think clearly, we lose our ability for perspective, working memory, will power or self-control and long term planning.
So, that begs the question just how well do you treat your brain? Our workshops and coaching programs use neuroscience to develop strategies for leaders to optimise their greatest asset, their mind.
Tips to help you think better
Slowing down is counter-intuitive, it feels like our external world is demanding us to go faster. Small changes that some of my clients are making are;
45 minute meetings – with 15 mins before the next meeting, time to gather your thoughts, let go of the last meeting and maybe grab a water.
Walk mindfully between meetings – what this means is when you are heading off to your next meeting instead of letting your mind churn through all the things you haven’t done or need to do, you simply focus on walking. You pay attention to the pressure of your feet on the floor, or the sounds of the office. This triggers your direct network and gives your brain a break from all that rumination.
Prioritise – don’t mistake being busy with being productive. Are you merely reacting to what is in front of you or are you carefully considering the priorities to achieve your goal? Take 15 mins out each day to take a big picture view of your day and what really needs to be accomplished.
It seems so obviously but so few people are actually taking breaks away from their desk and work. Lunch has become either a dimming memory or a quick bite whilst continuing to digest the budget. Taking breaks and walking away gives your brain a break, a chance to refresh. If you are struggling with something, heading out for a walk outside and just sitting in the fresh air will relax your brain enough so you are more likely to create that a-ha moment!
Eat and drink
Feeding your brain regularly will benefit your PFC functioning, the most sensitive part of the brain. The brain uses 20% of your body’s total energy and is therefore energy intensive and therefore needs regular glucose to function well. The problem is that feeding your brain too much or too little glucose will mean impaired performance. The glucose travels to your brain via your blood therefore blood sugar levels are critical.
If you eat irregularly i.e. starve your brain of glucose, and then eat a high sugar snack, the brain is overloaded with glucose and the additional glucose is discarded. So what you need is little and often.
The frequency of eating is important as is what you eat. Some foods are more satisfying than others and take longer to digest and therefore maintain more consistent levels of glucose. Your glucose is naturally low in the morning which is why breakfast is so important…. A good breakfast is essential to creating healthy glucose levels.
Label your thoughts and feelings.
When you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed if you label your thought and feelings you can trigger your brains natural braking system the Right Ventral Lateral PFC and reduce the stress response. In his paper Putting Feelings into Words Mathew Lieberman writes about his experiments in emotional regulation with the focus on just the act of labelling. He found that by labelling emotions verbally or non-verbally (journal writing) that it dramatically reduced the levels of stress in individuals. Lieberman found that after numerous studies it was clear that the RVLPFC activity disrupted the amygdala activation, therefore lowering a threat response.
Based on his work therefore it is important to regulate your emotional state by:
Saying how you feel – to others or to yourself. If someone upsets you it is ok to say :I am feeling very disappointed ….. “etc Practice I feel phrases.
Writing how you feel, using a journal to capture your thoughts and feelings is also a good tool to reduce amygdale activation.
Jeffrey Schwartz in The Mind and the Brain writes about a four step emotional regulation process for his patients – people with OCD. These people have thoughts that are overwhelming and yet through this process he has helped many patients to recover. This may be useful for people who have many negative internal thoughts. The process is:
Step 1: Relabel – name the feeling and label it as a thought
Step 2: Reattribute – name the fact that it is not you it is just a negative thought that you have learned over the years.
Step 3: Refocus – redirect your thoughts – create a pause, breath or use direct experience network, or do something else (distract), go for a walk
Step 4: Revalue – label those thoughts as just that, just neural pathways firing together, it is not permanent.
These are just a few great ideas that can destress your mind and improve your ability to think, plan and engage with others.
In our workshops and coaching sessions we use the latest research from neuroscience and psychology to help leaders understand how to optimise their thinking and move from reactive to responsive and proactive leaders.
”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.
Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years science has combined with religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson. What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.
“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain” The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley.
What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.
Default vs Direct Network
What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state. It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections. A recent lecture by Assistant Professor Golnaz Tabibnia from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA states that the default network includes;
Thinking about self (medial PFC)
Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)
So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.
The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa. David Rock in his book Your Brain at Work writes:
“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.”
So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.
Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were;
Better control over the default circuit.
Better able to regulate emotions
Become more aware of their unconscious processes
Able to change their attention
Improve self control or willpower
Have greater cognitive control
Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
Increase cortical thickness
Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.
Mindfulness is becoming more accepted as a ‘power app’ for leaders, a great antidote to our fast moving, complex work lives. Mindfulness is a great way to take care of your mind, to value it and to make sure that it is in good working order when you need it. Most of us are unfortunately not employed for our good looks, but we are employed for our minds. Yet like a neglectful tradie we mistreat our greatest tool, like leaving a valuable saw out in the rain, and yet still expect it to work magnificently when we call upon it.
For those interested there are a number of courses that can help you take the first step into developing mindfulness in your worklife. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.