COVID-19 has certainly put us all in touch with what it’s like to live with uncertainty. It has given us the opportunity to reflect on what uncertainty means to us, how we typically respond to it, and to unearth lessons from the past to support us during such challenging times.
What is uncertainty? To me uncertainty arises when change comes to us “out of the blue” or is imposed on us by someone or something that is outside of our control.
The Cambridge English dictionary defines uncertainty as: “a situation in which something is not known, or something that is not known for certain” and “the feeling of not being sure what will happen in the future” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org).
Uncertainty means different things to different people. I invite you to take a few minutes to think about your responses to the following questions. You may wish to journal about them.
How do you define uncertainty?
When you think about uncertainty what words or feelings come up for you?
I invite you to rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 in relation to how you typically respond to uncertainty; 1 being “scares me to death” and 10 being “I thrive on it.”
What have you learned from past experiences with uncertainty that you can apply to your experience during these challenging times? What life experiences have prepared you to be less anxious and less stressed during this pandemic?
What I’ve noticed about myself, friends, colleagues and clients is that those of us who have had previous experiences with uncertainty and processed them positively, have coped better with the current situation than those who have not.
Here are a few examples:
Living and working in conflict zones and environments with restricted movement:
I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. In Afghanistan I was driven to work every day in a bullet proof vehicle by an armed Afghan driver. We were followed by a “soft skin” vehicle with 3 Afghans holding AK- 47s. The first week I was rather “taken aback” by all of the military presence, but soon I relaxed and realized that “came with the territory”. Each day I didn’t know whether our vehicle would be pulled over by the police and be questioned about our papers and then taken to a nearby police station, or not. I lived in a state of constant uncertainty.
One day I was sitting in the rose garden of the Ministry of Public Health where I was working and having lunch with one of my female team members. All of sudden there was a huge explosion. A number of suicide bombers had attacked the military hospital across the road from the Ministry and killed numerous Afghan medical students, patients and their families. Immediately I received a text from my Head of Security advising me to stay where I was and that a vehicle would come for me soon/when it was safe to do so.
I lived in a small compound with 2 large houses and a small building that housed our guards and drivers. The compound was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. There were 3 men with AK-47s guarding the inside our walls at all times. I had to sign a waiver and commit to not walking in the street or outside of the compound due the security situation. Sometimes after work I would walk in circles inside the small compound as I so craved exercise and being in nature. Thankfully, we did have a small rose garden on the property.
How did I deal with the uncertainty of living and working in a conflict zone? Here are some strategies I found helpful:
- Did yoga every morning before heading out to work (sometimes with a colleague and sometimes on my own)
- Skyped with my Sweetie almost every morning; connected with someone I cared about who also cared about me
- Grounded myself every morning before heading to work
- Worked out in the on-site gym on a regular basis
- Often listened to music
- Surrounded myself with beauty; e.g. created a bedroom that had some beautiful local art including several small carpets and a water-color painting I purchased locally
- Started a gratitude journal and wrote down at least 3 things I was grateful for at the end of every day; Also journaled regularly about my feelings and experiences
- When I noticed some anxiety coming up, I took three deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth (releasing oxytocin, the hormone that relaxes your body and helps you feel at peace)
- Almost every Thursday night, I connected with my colleagues; other technical advisors and consultants who were working on various projects with the Afghan government. We considered this our weekend as Friday was prayer day and the only day we had off every week. We sometimes had a bonfire, roasted marshmallows; often we sang to the guitar music played by one of my colleagues. Sometimes we danced. We laughed and shared experiences together. Sometimes we drank a bit too much!
What I learned from these experiences was that I could live with uncertainty. I found that rarely was I anxious. I learned that I could live in a contained environment and still be happy, focused and do good work. I also learned some coping strategies that I can now apply to future times of uncertainty.
Over to you. What past experiences with uncertainty can support you during this challenging time? It may be that you were laid off from a job you loved “out of the blue”. It could be that a partner one day told you they no longer loved you and had found someone else.
If you have chosen to move and lived in many places or changed your work or career a number of times, this may also have made you more flexible and able to cope with uncertainty and change. Whereas, if you’ve worked for the same company for 30 years or lived in the same town you were born in, you may have more challenges dealing with uncertainty.
What I know to be true is that it is not enough to have had challenging and uncertain life and work experiences. We need to have processed them in a positive way. A helpful framework and tool to do this is my 5-step “Art of Change” Framework. Using this tool, you identify a change or uncertain situation you want to work on and where you are on your “transition journey”. You then do the work associated with the phase of the transition journey you are in; such as letting go of negative emotions, beliefs or behaviors that are no longer serving you, envisioning how you would like your life or work to look and feel like and then taking action to make it happen. This framework is underpinned by the belief that “embracing change (and uncertainty) is a creative process that opens us up to new possibilities”. To learn more, you may access “The Art of Change Framework” at: https://pamela-thompson.com/.
I believe that times of intense change and uncertainty provide us with the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, to dream big dreams and create new possibilities.
What previous experiences with uncertainty have helped you cope during this time? What tools or strategies have you found helpful to deal with uncertainty? I invite your comments below.
I so relate to this definition from
Ashoka (https://www.ashoka.org/) that “a changemaker is someone who is taking creative action to solve a social
problem.” They go on to say:
changemaker needs to launch their own start-up or be the president of an
organization; changemakers can find opportunities to make a difference in any
number of roles. They may have no ties to an organization; they may take action
as an individual or as part of a group; they may organize as a part of broader
community or they may work within a formal organization. “
Are you a changemaker?
If so, it is critically important that you understand change and how you
respond to it. Here are a couple of questions I encourage you to think about
and write down your responses to:
- When you think about change what words or emotions come up for you?
- Rate yourself on a scale from one to ten related to how you typically respond to change; “one” being “scares me to death” and “ten” being “I thrive on it’.
Many of us who declare ourselves as changemakers, including
those of us who are leaders of teams and organizations, respond to question #1 positively.
For example, when I think of change, words such as: “excitement”, “adventure”,
“opportunity”, “creativity” come up. Based on my experience with other changemakers
and leaders they respond similarly. In terms of question #2 many changemakers
and leaders typically rate themselves as a “nine” or a “ten”. That said, when
they ask the same questions to members of their teams or groups, responses to
question #1 may be “fear”, “uncertainty”, “anger”, “overwhelm”. And for #2 their
responses may be closer to “five” or “six” on the rating scale.
It is important to acknowledge that how you respond to
change when YOU initiate it is quite different than when it is imposed on you. If
change is imposed on you, your reactions and how you rate yourself on the scale
from “one” to “ten” typically change toward the negative.
So how do you as a
changemaker and/or leader, effectively navigate change and support others
around you to embrace, rather than resist change? Learning some facts about
change and openly exploring how you and your team respond to change is a good
Some Facts about Change
- Our bodies are hard-wired to react to change, to protect us and keep us safe
Our amygdala (part of the brain) is constantly scanning our environment for potential threats including things that are different. When it notices something it perceives to be a threat, it sends messages to our bodies that put us into fight, flight or freeze. When we are angry, feel like running away, or our minds freeze, we are NOT in a good position to make any decisions, or to positively influence others.
2. Our past
experiences with change affect how we respond to it. For example, if when
you were a child a relative you were close to died and no one let you see the
person at the wake and didn’t discuss the person’s death with you, as an adult
you may fear death and not feel comfortable speaking about it. Similarly, if
when you were a child and when changes happened, you typically learned to “get
on with things” and to not express your feelings about leaving a particular
school, relationship, home … , then this will likely affect how you respond to
endings as an adult.
3. We store beliefs
and emotions in our bodies. Dr. Bruce Lipton, a stem cell biologist by
training, in his book The Biology of
Belief, documents research conducted by himself and others that all the
cells in our bodies are affected by our thoughts. Dr. Candace Pert, an internationally
renowned researcher and biochemist in her landmark book Molecules of Emotion, shares evidence of the biochemical links
between the mind and body. That being the case, if we have had negative past
experiences with change, that will negatively impact how we respond to change
in our personal and our professional lives moving forward.
4. The good news is that we can change the physiological structure of our brains (create new
neural pathways) with our thoughts. 
The implications of this body of work to us as leaders and changemakers, is
that we can learn, model and teach others how to embrace rather than resist
Why am I so passionate about this?
don’t learn to embrace change we:
- keep repeating the same patterns in our lives and remain unhappy & unfulfilled
- Feel constantly under stress leading to chronic health issues and negative impacts on our relationships & our businesses
- Expend a lot of energy resisting change
bottom line is if we don’t learn to embrace change, over time it negatively
impacts both our personal and our professional lives.
How can we reduce our
fear of change?
- Better understand how and why we
respond to change
- Learn a proven model and tools to
help us reduce resistance, and embrace and successfully navigate any change
more you understand change and the more self-aware you are about how and why
you respond to it, the more easily you can embrace and move through it.
What has been your
experience with change? How have you effectively dealt with change in the past?
I welcome your comments below. Feel free to share this with people who you
think might find it of interest.
 Doidge, Norman, The Brain that Changes Itself. London: Penguin Books, 2007
It is an understatement to say that we live in uncertain times. In this challenging period, characterized by worldwide conflict, sharp political divisions, and racism, you may feel uncertain about your future, the future of your family, your organization, and the planet. You may think there is little you can do in your day-to-day life and work to make a significant difference. You are a natural leader, yet in the current climate you may be wondering how you can lead with greater compassion, understanding, clarity and confidence.
What I know to be true is that HOW you perceive uncertainty has a powerful influence on your effectiveness and your ability to lead.
A number of years ago I read in Freedom to Love, Freedom to Heal, a phrase that stuck with me, and that I pondered for some time:
“Uncertainty is the path to freedom”
When we are in a sea of change or chaos, and much of what we know is being questioned, disassembled or is foreign, it is difficult to believe this is true. How CAN uncertainty be the path to freedom?
When I’ve worked in conflict zones and foreign countries where I didn’t speak the language, every day was uncertain. In Afghanistan on the way to work, my vehicle with its armed Afghan driver could be pulled over by police at any time, and we could be questioned at length or commanded to drive to the nearest police station for further questioning. At any moment, a suicide bomb attack could occur nearby.
To work effectively in these environments, I couldn’t be fearful and focus on the negative possibilities. To do so would result in stress hormones constantly pumping through my body, and an inability to function effectively. I had to focus on the positive difference I was making on the people and within the organizations whose capacity I was building. Many times I had to be creative about the processes and solutions I chose, and trust that they would work. One example was when I met with the Minister of the Department who I was working with to develop their first strategic plan. Within that first meeting she asked me for a report based on what I thought of the policy development and planning processes within her Ministry. She wanted this report within a month, and I had just arrived in a country that I’d never before worked in whose language I did not speak! The first thing I did was ask an Afghan colleague if he had or knew where to obtain an organizational chart in English. He said he didn’t think one existed so I asked him for one in local language. Then I pointed to the 15 highest-level “boxes” on the org chart and asked what departments they were and the names of each Director. Shortly after, I approached my colleague to take me in person and introduce me to each Director. At each introduction, I would ask for an hour or so of their time to be interviewed and stated that I would follow up with some questions prior to each interview. All those approached were happy to accommodate me. The result was, I met the top 15 key decision-makers in the Ministry within the first month. I asked them how they developed policy and did planning, what was working, what wasn’t and what suggestions they would offer to improve policy development and planning processes within their Ministry. I “rolled up” their data, teasing out the key strengths, weaknesses and their suggestions for improvement, and added my own observations and recommendations. In about a month I submitted my report to the Minister. Months later when I was in meetings with many of those I’d interviewed and they asked why a certain action had been taken, I was able to refer to those interviews and the fact that a particular action had been taken to address an issue they had raised with me months before.
Perhaps the reason I enjoy working in foreign countries and cultures is because many processes I’ve used have never before been tested in a particular culture or language, OR I am challenged to come up with creative solutions for situations I’ve never before encountered.
So how can we lead effectively in times of uncertainty?
Key Beliefs for Effective Leadership in Uncertain Times
1) It is important to believe that uncertain times provide opportunities for creativity, and new and innovative approaches versus playing it safe and doing things “like we’ve always done”. Belief and what we believe is powerful! Did you know that you CAN change your life by changing your beliefs? Bruce Lipton, an internationally recognized stem cell biologist, demonstrated in his research that “the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life.” Epigenetics “… the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off” further supports Lipton’s work, as it reveals that our perceptions influence our biology.
As leaders we have an incredible opportunity to influence the beliefs of those around us. What if we truly believed that uncertain times provide opportunities for creativity and new and innovative approaches? Imagine leading from a place of hope, rather than fear and uncertainty.
2) You have the power to change the world.
The butterfly effect demonstrates that powerful outcomes are extremely sensitive to initial conditions; such that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can result in a tornado over Kansas 2 years later. Another example is how the black woman, Rosa Parks, refusing to go to the back of the bus, resulted in the birth of the civil rights movement in the United States. If you believe that you have the power to change the world, the values you emanate and the courageous actions you take influence those around you.
3) The Power of Collaboration and Synergy – When I was young, I believed that I could get things done better if I did them all myself, based on my experiences working with groups in elementary and high school. You may relate. It wasn’t until I was chairing a national strategy in my 30s with representatives from a number of organizations, facilitated by a skilled facilitator, when I realized that a group of diverse individuals when focused around a common and powerful vision CAN make an incredible difference. It was then that I understood the power of synergy; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
4) Understanding and Compassion is the way forward – One of the lessons I’ve learned from living and working in a number of diverse cultures, is that if we seek to understand why someone does or says something, rather than judge them based on our own perspective, our life and work is much more interesting and fulfilling. Rather than becoming angry, judgmental and imposing our beliefs on others, coming from a place of curiosity and compassion builds connection and enables people to do their best work. … What I’ve learned is that people always do things for a reason that makes sense to them.
Our perceptions have a powerful influence on our effectiveness as leaders in uncertain times. I welcome your comments and invite you to share your experiences below. Feel free to share this post with others.
Together we CAN change the world!
 A book by Dr. David Simon, neurologist, and internationally renowned expert in mind-body medicine.
 The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles, xiv