6 Actions to Adapt your Organization to Uncertainty

by Dr. Brad Cousins

This article is the first of a three-part series that provides best practices to lead through uncertainty. The series and its companion webinar broadcasted in partnership with the University of Arkansas’ Walton School of Business, are all available on the Ingage website.

During the webinar, we highlighted the three leadership characteristics to successful lead through uncertainty:

  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Prediction – the ability to predict the future

Uncertainty and its impact

Uncertainty can have devastating effects on human organizations, and especially on businesses. It is easy to see why: human beings need two fundamental ingredients to thrive in life: meaning and control. Uncertainty can take away both: it removes the clarity and coherence of the normal flow of events, and it suggests that fate, or some combination of external events, will determine what happens and take away the agency that most individuals expect.

Uncertainty is therefore one of the drivers for anxiety; and because anxiety is cognitively processed by our primal brain – the siege of our emotions – it triggers in individuals and employees the usual threat responses: fight, flight or freeze, none of which are particularly suited to operating a complex organization. In the current COVID-19 crisis, when you see mid-level managers paralyzed under pressure, when you see infighting within teams or across departments, when you see people disengaged, what you really see is the insidious work of uncertainty.

As leaders, it is therefore critical that you find ways to manage the impact of uncertainty on yourself first and on the teams and organizations that depend on your sound leadership. No one can go back to work in any productive capacity unless they have acknowledged uncertainty and successfully applied specific practices to address it effectively.

Adaptability is an Action

In the natural world, adaptation is the fundamental condition for survival. Complex organizations like businesses are no different. In fact, thoughtful leaders can turn adaptability into one of the key approaches to manage their organization through uncertainty.

Adaptability is the process of adjusting to new and changing conditions. This is worth repeating: adaptability is about adjusting. Adaptability is not a state, it is an action. Therefore, it is a leader’s responsibility to proactively enhance their own adaptability and that of their organizations.

To do so, leaders should consider 6 actions:

  1. Know yourself. A good leader knows themselves and is constantly striving to develop. Use behavioral analytics such as the Predictive Index to objectively measure your own natural need for stability vs. variety, need for rules and structure, and risk appetite. Not everyone is a natural adapter, but knowing yourself will allow you to consciously flex your natural behavior to more naturally embrace uncertainty. Now may be the time to use a behavioral coach or expert advisor as accountability partner to do so
  1. Flex or build your bias for action. You fight uncertainty by experimenting and learning, and building your data set about the world around you. The more you learn, the more the less uncertainty there is in your universe. In an uncertain world where data has become unreliable, timely action trumps detailed analysis. Be willing to act on a small scale (to protect your core business) and take some measured risks.
  1. Put learning above success. Emulate the process of natural selection, which works by trial and error. Embrace failure by seeing it as an assumption that you have proved or disproved. That mental shift from success to learning will work wonders to relieve the pressure on employees who may be worried about making high-stake mistakes
  1.  Be curious. Adaptability means changing in concert with changing circumstances. Even if you or your organization are unwilling or unable to experiment, you should at least be curious about what is changing in your universe.
  1. Recognize people’s unique traits. Not everyone is as adaptable as you may be. Meet your employees where they are by adapting your communication and actions to their own natural ability and pace to adapt. Be vulnerable and share your own efforts to know yourself and to develop your own adaptability. Challenge them to flex around their natural pace of change, as you’ve done yourself, but be mindful that too much flex may just add to the ambient anxiety. In any case, invest in talent analytics to know your employees’ natural needs and behaviors, and make sure they know themselves
  1. Promote the natural adapters. Look at your bench and use behavioral analytics to identify your employees who are naturally adaptable, risk tolerant, quick to act. Give them a bigger voice and make them visible role models to foster greater adaptability in the organization.

In the next articles of this series, we will share best practices to build individual and organizational resilience, and to predict the future (which, by implementing scenario planning and running simulations, is not as daunting nor impossible as it may sound).

Unsure about your own adaptability? Take a page from the adaptability book itself and try some of these practices in a spirit of learning. Share your own adaptability and transformation journeys with us. We want to hear from you and be able to share personal and organizational experiences across practitioners. As businesses and organizations build their ability to cope with uncertainty, our communities will benefit by regaining their footing faster. Leading through uncertainty is therefore our collective responsibility.  

Ingage and adaptability

Ingage’s purpose of helping business leaders be the best version of themselves for their organization has never been more timely. We coach and support leaders to address uncertainty and to foster adaptability, resilience and prediction in their organizations.

Dr. Brad Cousins, CEO of Ingage Human Capital Strategies and Vistage Chair, has recently been accepted into Forbes Coaches Council, an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches.