You have a new boss. The company culture is changing as the strategic plan is implemented. The market shifts in an unexpected direction. The country elects a new president. What do these things have in common? They all are accompanied by uncertainty which you are faced with managing as a leader in your organization.

Ignoring the uncertainty or trying to power through it is unlikely to result in a productive environment that lasts. A better approach is to find a way to process the uncertainty you’re experiencing so that it seems less nebulous and enables actions to be taken to effectively work through it.

You may not see or react to uncertainty the same way as others. That’s okay. You’re human. So, recognize what is happening to help you make sense of it. One framework that can be beneficial in this regard has become known as the “five stages of grief” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, because people often demonstrate grief-like reactions as they grapple with uncertainty. Here are the five stages with business-related examples:

  1. Denial: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” “This won’t affect me or my division.”
  2. Anger: “How did this happen?” “Don’t they know what challenges this will cause?”
  3. Bargaining: “If I am willing to do X, will the company do Y?”
  4. Depression: “I don’t see how this will be successful and where I fit into the picture.”
  5. Acceptance: “I now see how this can work, and I can facilitate it by doing Z.”

Keep in mind that not everyone goes through the stages sequentially or just once. To help you reach and stay in the “acceptance” stage, try these starting points:

Investigate the Blanks

If you think there are too many information gaps, don’t wait for someone to fill them in for you. Seek out what you can. You may not obtain complete information, but you may get enough to fill in crucial gaps that will enable you to move forward.

Play Out Multiples

Run through different scenarios including what is likely to happen and how you would address them. Although the real situation may not occur exactly like one of your versions, scenario planning establishes a foundation from which you can pull elements to address what occurs.

Use Your Internal GPS

Even amid uncertainty, there are some personal constants that you can draw upon to guide you. Your core values and beliefs have formed over the course of your life and can serve as navigation tools. If you hit a point when you’re unsure how to handle the fluidity you encounter, take a couple minutes to consider what your values and beliefs are, how they informed what you did in the past, and how they would apply to the current situation.

Set the Tone

Once you’re in a leadership role, people will make note of how you react to uncertainty. This in turn can impact how they deal with uncertainty. Composure on your part can help ease concerns and give a sense of stability.

Whether you like it or not, uncertainty is a factor in your life as a leader. If you are not someone who can embrace uncertainty, developing the ability to navigate it will at least provide more peace of mind for you and those you lead.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Ambiguity or Opportunity?, Flickr)