Dealing with uncertainty fatigue

How to get your business to move forward and overcome fatigue caused by ongoing uncertainty.

At the time of writing this article, Victoria, Australia is in another lockdown, which has just been extended and there is no certainty about what will come next. Many places around the globe are also experiencing high numbers of new cases, various levels of lockdown and an uncertain future.

Vaccine rollouts continue, providing hope for an end to the pandemic (or at least leading to a greater level of control). However new variants of the virus are emerging, raising questions about the longer-term efficacy of vaccines.

All of this results in a great deal of uncertainty about the future – both for individuals and businesses.

When first faced with this uncertainty in 2020, there was a more positive sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘we will come together as community to survive’. However, as the pandemic goes on, this is being replaced with a growing sense of fatigue. We are becoming tired trying to deal with all this uncertainty.

Why does uncertainty cause fatigue?

As humans we prefer certainty and predictability – even if we know the outcome won’t be good for us.

Researchers from the University College London undertook an experiment to measure the impacts of uncertainty on levels of stress and anxiety. They found that participants showed greater levels of anxiety and stress when they were told they had only a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock than if they were certain they would get the shock.

Similar responses can be seen in organisational change. When change is imposed on an organisation (either externally or through a top-down approach) people will resist. Staff will try to hold onto what they know – what they can control. They will seek to retain control and certainty over their future.

When the stresses caused by uncertainty continue for an extended period, as is the case with the pandemic, we become fatigued and less able to function ‘normally’ or cope with the situation. We feel overwhelmed, which can lead to inaction.

The same is true at an organisational level. More and more we are seeing boards and senior executive teams struggling to maintain a sense of direction and focus on the future. It is challenging to develop strategic and operational plans when the context keeps changing (and can change very rapidly).

It has become tempting for many to simply ‘bunker down’ and wait for the storm to pass. To put all planning on hold and manage day-to-day until the future is clearer. This is akin to sitting on the couch and watching Netflix until the world returns to normal.

Whilst an understandable response, it will have negative impacts on the longer-term sustainability of the organisation.

What to do about it?

The obvious advice might be to ‘get off the couch’ and go and develop a strategic plan based on a range of scenarios. For some this may work, however for most organisations dealing with uncertainty fatigue this would be too much to contemplate.

The better approach is to take small, controllable steps. Regain a greater sense of focus and control. Instead of considering the wide range of constantly changing future scenarios, think more about the current situation and what you can do now. Be present to the current situation and focus on the here-and-now rather than the uncertain future.

This might feel counterintuitive as it is neglecting the future and avoiding putting plans in place to meet changing demands. However, it is about re-energising the organisation to give it the strength and resilience needed to meet those changing demands. Taking what might seem like a step backwards now, will position the organisation better to take bigger steps forward in the future.

This can be achieved relatively simply. At your next executive team meeting or board meeting ask everyone this simple question:

“What are the three simple things that are within our control that we can do right now to make things better?”

Keep the question quite open and allow any idea to be shared – no matter how big or small the change is. This will not only help to energise those present but could also lead to some great actions to be taken.

With some of our clients this has led to a range of interesting ideas such as: celebrate our wins; undertake online training; doing some ‘housekeeping’ (all those little tasks that get put off when we are busy); experiment with new ideas; review our performance.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the ideas are, simply having some actions that are within your control as an organisation will go a long way to overcoming uncertainty fatigue.

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About the author … Dr Jason Talbot is a Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia, a Chartered Accountant and the Managing Director of Graphite i2i, a specialist boutique management consulting firm which provides governance, strategy, business transformation, performance improvement, and M&A services to medium and large organisations. The company’s highly innovative business assessment and transformation methodology, 6C Framework, provides CEOs and Boards with a holistic view and understanding of their business’ capabilities, allowing them to readily identify areas in greatest need of attention or determine where future opportunities lie.

Should you require assistance dealing with uncertainty:

Contact Jason on 0450 049 444

Email: jason.talbot@graphitei2i.com.au

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