PM Articles > Geof Lory > Get Comfortable With Uncertainty

Get Comfortable With Uncertainty

by Geof Lory

In a couple of previous articles I wrote about some of the foundational behaviors that enable teams to move through Storming and into Norming, such as listening for or using words of inclusion and choice ("A Few Closing Words" and "Where Do You Listen From?"). While these individual behaviors set the stage for the transition, they still need some practical assistance from leaders to really launch the team to the more productive Norming stage.

In my last article, "Let's Get Real," I referenced fear and how it gets in the way of effective testing. Fear is a very deep, primal emotion, so it should be no surprise that fear is at the root of behaviors that keep teams in the Storming stage. In this article, I'll dig into fear a little more and see how dealing with it can positively impact the transformation of a team.

First, let me say that I am not a trained therapist and don't expect the average project manager or parent to be one either. So, I don't recommend digging into anyone's psychological dirt or playing Jr. Dr. Freud. There is plenty of natural instinctive behavior around fear as a basic motivator or drive, irrespective of an individual's history or their background. So, keeping it at the “fight or flight” level will suffice for this discussion. Should you choose to take it deeper, I suggest special training and licensing before practicing.

Secondly, when I refer to fear, I am also referring to the associated uncertainty and doubt. Intrinsically, fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) are present emotions that reflect the perception of the possible but unrealized future. So, collectively, I will address FUD, even if I am only referencing one. I am not going to pretend that fear can be eliminated, and I'm not sure I would want that if it were possible. What I do think is possible is to channel the energy of fear to grow and motivate teams, if you are willing to address your own fears.

Fear—Founded in Uncertainty

When a team is storming, FUD is rampant. The symptoms can be observed in chaotic conversations, dysfunctional interactions, or excessive self-protective behavior. The fear stems from the foggy view of the uncertain future. That is why many standard project management practices and processes are aimed at clarifying the future to reduce the uncertainty. Documenting requirements and work in a Statement of Work and associated Work Breakdown Structure; establishing roles and responsibilities in a RAM/RACI chart; documenting procedures and plans for risk, resourcing, and communication—all attempt to make the future more certain and, in doing so, reduce the fear.

But the future, by definition, will always include some element of uncertainty, and therefore some associated fear. Rather than spending excessive energy attempting to predict the future, I suggest we work with the energy of FUD effectively and constructively to transform and motivate the team.

At a base level, fear creates a fight/flight response. Both behaviors are symptomatic of the team struggling with uncertainty. The fight is usually seen through resistance and negativity on the team. You can overcome some of this resistance by driving the clarity that reduces uncertainty. However, managers are not always patient enough to apply this approach and instead find it easier to up the ante with fear. Their feeling is that what is needed is urgency to mobilize the team, and they believe instilling fear will do just that.

Fear may mobilize, but it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Unfortunately, "away from" is usually whichever direction someone is facing when that primal instinct screams Run! Everyone around them will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won't move them in the same direction. Flight is random, and will usually create a higher level of unproductive chaos. Not a good recipe for team Norming.

If uncertainty is at the heart of fear, and some uncertainty is inherent when dealing with the future, we can reduce some of the non-productive fight/flight response of fear by changing the perception or reaction to the uncertainty. To do this, we need to provide people with some control and choice around the future.

FUD—Create Control and Choice

People can get comfortable with uncertainty when they believe they have choices that can affect the outcome or that they have some control over the future. In other words, if someone can exercise control over the thing that makes them afraid, they can manage it. When fear surrounds something out of your control, it is a de-motivator. This makes sense. If you tell a co-worker they should fear losing their job because they are not collaborating with the rest of the team, that's something they have control over. But if you tell them they could lose their job if the planned venture funding falls through, that's something they have no control over.

So, at the heart of leveraging fear is giving people control and the ability to exercise choice about the future. When we feel we are in control and we can make choices, FUD will be reduced. Understanding this simple concept gives us a guideline for motivating our teams: if we create an environment where uncertainty is embraced through encouraging choice and control, we reduce the fear factor and the associated lost productivity. In essence, we have turned the keys to the fear of the future over to those who will live it.

Leadership Releases Control

If fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions, leaders who use fear to motivate can expect unpredictable and most likely undesirable outcomes. Command and control leadership may be useful for short periods or under extreme circumstances, but rarely is it effective as the main modus operandi. If people are doing things just because they fear the uncontrollable consequences, without any sense of choice, fear through governance will be required to keep them motivated.

When people are given the responsibility in a way that allows them to actually affect their situation, to control and choose their actions, they can fully embrace the uncertainty and make personal contributions that will have an impact. That's pretty powerful, and it won't require constant governance or oversight.

Facing Your Own Fears

For many managers and executives releasing control (or even sharing it) is a scary proposition. They fear that chaos will reign supreme. However, my experience has been just the opposite. I work with a lot of agile software teams where continual self-organization is critical to improving performance and productivity. While I may have initially wrestled control away from managers who were themselves uncomfortable with the uncertainty of letting go, I have rarely seen teams misuse their newfound responsibility.

I once worked on contract for a company where the owner made a habit of harboring control and restricting choice. It was common practice that all decisions had to be vetted and approved by him. In spite of his tremendously talented staff, each employee eventually capitulated, living in the swamp of uncertainty. His compulsion to control and govern everything along with his excessive use of coercive power had created a toxic culture of fear. No surprise that he regularly complained that nothing got done without him yelling about it, and he was right. But he failed to see that he was living the problem he had created himself. The more control you try to gain through fear, the more weight you add to the anchor that slows the organization down.

If you want to help teams out of the morass of Storming and into Norming, by all means, gain clarity and certainty wherever possible. And, if you have the courage and confidence in your team, release control and instead provide guidance and coaching. I'm betting you will be pleasantly surprised and your teams will be more motivated.

As a father to two teenage daughters in a world of increasing uncertainty, I've lived with my share of parental fear. I've feared for their safety, for their friends, for their health, but mostly for those things I have little control over or choice in anymore. They are adults now and I've gradually let go of the illusion that I ever had control over them. Instead, now I enjoy the occasional father/daughter heart to heart. I know the world is no less uncertain, but knowing they have accepted control and can make their own choices, allows me to sleep a little better—most nights.

Related Links
The future may be inscrutable, but it never hurts to reduce the mystery with a bit of planning like the Statement of Work or Work Breakdown Structure Geof mentions. If your project is too uncertain for even that, you could try some agile planning approaches instead. If you understand what kinds of uncertainty your project will face, this presentation can help you select an appropriate management style for it.

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