Beyond resilience: Why Uncertainty Tolerance should be your focus for an uncertain future
by Sam Conniff

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Fear of uncertainty costs industry over a trillion dollars every year. You don’t have to look far for hyperbolic predictions about the ‘most uncertain times ever’. Even relatively conservative sources, such as The World Uncertainty Index call our present moment, “the most uncertain time in human history”. 

Left unchecked, uncertainty breeds fear. And when we’re afraid, we stop. We look backwards, to see what’s worked before. Combatting uncertainty is essential. Continual uncertainty leads to anxiety, indecision and burnout — burnout alone has an annual cost of £23Bn to the UK economy.

Just last week, the Uncertainty Experts released a report about the power of transforming uncertainty. Uncertainty Experts are led by me, and our research team is headed by Cognitive Scientist Katherine Templar-Lewis. We explore those 3am thoughts and night terrors. And the results are counterintuitive, to say the least. 

To build a truly creative resilience, we need to look beyond today’s limited use of the term. To admit, “I don’t know” so we can benefit from the challenges of uncertainty.

Understanding exhaustion 

The concept of resilience is ubiquitous. It’s foundational. But today’s understanding of resilience places too much burden on individuals. Uncertainty Tolerance is a more robust, measurable and equitable tool. It allows us to navigate rapid, repeated changes all while building the group, leaving no-one behind.

Leaving safe waters

Uncertainty Tolerance (UT) is a scientifically validated scale that makes it possible to measure and understand an individual’s tolerance of uncertainty. Discovered in the 1990s, UT is the tool we need to cope with today’s rising levels of uncertainty. And it has a new role in today’s post-calm, post-resilience world.

Increasing UT directly, quickly and measurably, protects against chronic mental and physical health problems. UT also helps to build outcomes such as creative problem-solving, managed risk-taking and collaboration. Crucially, it’s also shown to improve strategic decision-making.

McKinsey dubs these skills, “power skills” Their 2021 survey found adaptability and coping with uncertainty were the two skills most strongly linked with higher likelihood of employment. Growing power skills, helps people to make smarter decisions. Helping build organisations that thrive when they hear, ‘I don’t know’.

Bad decision Vs indecision

The leader who knows how to say ‘I don’t know’, while simultaneously inspiring and reassuring their staff is a rare animal. Unsurprisingly, it’s even rarer to find teams that actually want to hear their leader admit their limits.

Research from King’s College, London has found that participants would prefer to give themselves an electric shock than experience the uncertainty of the possibility of an electric shock. I’ve asked hundreds of C-Suite execs if, when facing uncertain times, they’d prefer to be seen as having made a bad decision, rather than be indecisive.

The answer is always the same. 9 to 1, in favour of being seen to be decisive, even when the decision was a stinker. 

This paradox presents a potential upgrade of leadership in uncertain times.

The result of this paradox? Watching a manager or leader give a vision of the future they clearly don’t believe in. We’ve all done that. As they spoke, you nodded along. Because, denial is less scary than collectively admitting we don’t know what to do. 

In 2022, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes. In 2016 the average was two changes. Between 2016 and 2020 we’ve all experienced a pandemic, increasing effects of climate change, geopolitical instability and global price hikes. We’re tired of change. But it is our new reality.

Based on a forecast of permanent uncertainty with a chance of chaos, some proactivity around our future skills is required to foster collaboration and creativity. 

Building Uncertainty Tolerance

When faced with ambiguity, we’re prone to falling back on familiar tactics.  Building Uncertainty Tolerance (UT) allows us to access the freedom of admitting, “I don’t know”.

Sharing Risk

Over our two years of practice, and partners from LEGO to Netflix, the top two skills we’re asked to provide have shifted. Two years ago, the brief was always ‘help teams find clarity and confidence’. Now we’re consistently asked to help teams be more curious and collaborative.

Because, when a workplace culture embraces uncertainty, the focus transforms from ‘what’ to ‘how?’ From passivity to action. From fear to excitement. From individual to collective responsibility. To being brave together.

Individualist, risk-averse teams are leaving money on the table. Individualism is a major culprit. If the personal risk to our carefully-curated careers seems to be a bigger risk than a small, compound benefit to our employer, we’ll look after our own interests. So, for many mid-level leaders, saying ‘I don’t know’ might be the only honest answer, but it isn’t an option.

But through our work at Uncertainty Experts, we’re seeing over and over again that it’s not just unrealistic to expect their teams to have all the answers — it’s borderline unhealthy.

Rather than expecting individuals to be resilient individuals, building UT helps teams build and nurture their collective responsibility. 

I don’t know.

Our research shows that collective efforts evolve an authentic response to risk, one that is resoundingly tolerant of uncertainty and speaks to how UT leads to a growth mindset.

I don’t know:   Might be honest, but leads to inaction.

I don’t know, but I’ll work it out: Honest, and now leads to curiosity.

I don’t know but we’ll work it out: Honest, curious and collaborative.

This pattern evolves uncertainty from a necessary evil to unchartered, exciting territory of growth, collaboration and discovery.

Embracing uncertainty

It may well sound close to creative resilience to some. Still, in our experience and insights, a shorthand understanding of Uncertainty Tolerance is that it enables people to get better at taking the blows that life is doling out.  

And after working with over 20,000 participants from across the world, we’re confident that the key difference with increasing UT over resilience is that UT enables people to get better, faster, stronger and smarter as a result of the blows. 

We can teach ourselves and each other to embrace uncertainty. To trust each other and lift each other as we rise. The basis for this is cognitive restructuring. And cognitive processes can be taught at scale.

It is possible and simple to train teams to transition from asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” to considering, “What’s the best that can happen?” 

During times of such relentless change and difficult news, helping employees engage with the reality of constant uncertainty provides a frame for working with feelings of grief, outrage and anxiety. People can come at these big feelings with curiosity, helping people to befriend their feelings so their insights appear. 

The path of resilience is well-understood and well-trodden. The pathway ahead is truly unknown. 

The role of resilience is essential in keeping us adapting. 

The opportunity of growing Uncertainty Tolerance is the chance for reinvention. 

Take a look at our most recent robust research, and insights here.

About the Author:

Sam Conniff is an expert in uncertainty and dedicated to helping people navigate change and turn fear into opportunity. Sam is the author of the international best-seller and “modern life-bible” Be More Pirate and the founder of the world’s largest research study into uncertainty, the Uncertainty Experts.

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