8 steps to navigating uncertainty

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By Dino Signore

As business leaders struggle to navigate COVID-19, one of the most difficult challenges is dealing with the many levels of uncertainty.

Neuroscience tells us that our brains prefer security and predictability. During uncertain times, our limbic system becomes hyperactivated and releases neurochemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. This can be helpful if you need to suddenly change traffic lanes or, like our ancestors, run from a tiger. Yet a prolonged release of cortisol can lead to a host of problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to poor sleep, headaches, gastrointestinal issues and heart disease.

The truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty, however, we can control our responses to it.

Entrepreneurs tend to be very action-oriented. When events don’t unfold as expected, their natural instinct is often to press on harder, fixate and squeeze tighter on the reins. Yet rather than trying to overcontrol, which actually diminishes our cognitive abilities and generates fatigue, the goal here is to practice self-control. We want to regulate our emotions and behavior when it’s appropriate and to surrender when it’s not.

A psychological term, “surrender” shouldn’t be mistaken for helplessness, giving up or becoming a victim. Instead, surrendering means you make the decision to let go of things you cannot control and focus on the things you can control. It’s a way of looking at things…a productive perspective.

As a business psychologist, here are my suggestions to find balance:

  1. Acknowledgment — Recognize you are confronting a crisis. This is important because people move through states of denial at different time intervals, and when encountering something unexpected, self-preservation skills make it difficult to admit you are in trouble.
  2. Accept personal responsibility — Although we can’t change the macro issue of a pandemic or economic downturn ourselves, we can control our own behavior — and influence others with our actions.
  3. Build a fence — Identify the specific problems you’re having that need to be solved. Make a list of what you can control and what you can’t be in control of. Put a mental fence around those things you can’t control and strive to not expend mental energy by ruminating on them.
  4. Communicate — Reach out to your family and friends, your employees, your customers and suppliers. They need you and you need them. Talking to others reminds us that we are not flawed or alone.
  5. Look to other people for models — This might be someone you currently know or someone from history (e.g., Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela). Try to identify what these individuals did during difficult times in terms of coping skills.
  6. Recognize your strengths — In a crisis, people tend to dwell on scarcity, what’s lacking in their lives. Remember that there are still things in your favor. Recognize your personal strengths and your company’s core competencies — and move forward on them. For example, here at the foundation we are adapting one of our peer-learning programs to specifically serve the needs of business owners affected by the current healthcare crisis.
  7. Recall past crises you’ve survived — Living through difficult times builds character and confidence. We can remind ourselves of what we did during those situations and strengthen our resilience. Be mindful that this crisis can be more traumatic for younger people, who don’t have past experiences as a reference point. They might need more help and guidance right now.
  8. Cultivate adaptability — Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Individuals with a fixed mindset see their skills and capabilities as static and difficult to change. Yet those with a growth mindset approach life’s challenges as a learning experience. They have confidence in their ability to master new skills and don’t give up easily.

I believe that a crisis is an intersection between threats and opportunities. Although there may seem to be nothing but bad news, we need to remind ourselves — and our teams — that this is a time to learn and adapt. Now is the time to set strategies in order to move away from threats and toward opportunities.

Article copyright © 2020 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.