By -

It’s natural to feel anxious or overwhelmed when the world is constantly changing and your environment seems out of control. Here are some coping strategies for living with pandemic-induced ambiguity.

If the last two years have brought us anything, its how to live with volatility and ambiguity. We’ve pivoted time and again and learnt that certainty is an elusive concept. But how does the human mind make sense of ambiguity?  Why do some adapt while others experience analysis paralysis? How can we best cope when under a constant sense of the unknown?

Neuroscientists have long known that humans are hardwired to crave certainty. As ambiguity increases, so does our fear and stress response, which leads us in search of predictability and familiarity.  Surprisingly, such is our preference for certainty that we tend to choose predictable outcomes over uncertain ones – even when we know the ambiguous pathway may well be more desirable.

A key insight for working with high levels of uncertainty is recognising that some challenges are unsolvable. This means we need to be managing, not controlling, the situation. Striving to make the best decision with the information available, and employing effective approaches to managing the ongoing moving parts.   

The US Army War College was one of the first organisations to develop a model that represents the challenges faced in uncertain times. It was initially developed in response to the chaos created by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and later adapted by business to reflect corporate unpredictability. It is referred to as VUCA, an acronym which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous and represents a set of challenges that individuals, teams, managers, and organisations face. Fortunately, there are strategies and techniques recognised to support us in VUCA environments.

From an individual perspective:

Understand the situation. Take a growth mindset to dealing with the constant changes. This enables us to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat, and helps us move away from a predictive, dogmatic mindset. When working under such conditions, brainstorming with others can support you to challenge your assumptions and view things from a myriad of perspectives, rather than through your own, perhaps inflexible, thinking patterns.

Avoid knee-jerk reactions to situations and evaluate whether your response is optimal. In doing so, differentiate between variables you can control and those that you can’t, and focus your efforts on issues within your sphere of influence. When we worry about problems we can’t control we are more likely to invest in unwieldy behaviours. Consider which course of action is going to help you progress, rather than implementing unhelpful behaviours.

Communicate and clarify with colleagues and teams to broaden out your understanding of the various elements of the situation. In doing so, transparently communicate what you know as well as the gaps in your knowledge. Leaders who withhold or avoid addressing areas of unknown can create a sense of misinformation, or even panic, within their teams.

Be proactive. Make the best decision you can with the information that you have. After due consideration of the situation you might decide not take any action at all.  This may be a perfectly appropriate response because it is considered and intentional, as opposed to avoidant and reactionary.

In choosing our response to ambiguity, we have a choice to rigidly resist or flexibility adapt.

From an organisational perspective:

Create a long-term vision. Firms that have clear strategic and organisational values tend to counter volatility more effectively. The long-term nature of an organisational strategy can help weather the transient nature of ambiguity by maintaining a well-anchored overview of the firm’s goals and purpose.

Create a culture which values behaviours, not just outcomes. Humans embrace ambiguity more successfully in environments that reward effective behaviours (commitment, accountability, conscientiousness etc.) rather than just outcomes (such as billable hours). That’s because, whatever the situation, we can individually and collectively choose our behaviours, even if the outcome we desire is unattainable or less controllable. 

Consider future scenarios based on best evidence. Identifying possible future scenarios can help guide firms through uncertain times. A robust approach for doing so is referred to as Scenario Planning. Originally developed for the US military, it is a technique of exploring the future through a series of possible scenarios, thus preparing for a variety of situations.  It takes one through a process of: identifying the issue and driving forces, exploring the uncertainty, developing probable scenarios and exploring best practice approaches.

Uncertainty and rapid change are a mainstay of everyday working life. In choosing our response to ambiguity, we have a choice to rigidly resist or flexibility adapt. We can do the latter by recognising the dilemmas presented, accepting that some challenges cannot be immediately disentangled, and seeking out the most effective decisions given the information to hand.