Accepting Uncertainty in Leadership

Arden CoachingBy Kathy Poehnert, MEd Psych, PCC. The issues of stress and worry are states of being we, as coaches, deal with on a regular basis. In fact, it is pretty safe to say managing anxiety is probably one of the top past times (!) of most human beings… worry is simply one mechanism to deal with anxiety.  

What purpose does worry serve? (I have heard that “worrying is like praying for what you don’t want;” and that makes sense when seen in the light of “getting what you focus on”). Worry, however, is a very specific mechanism that seems to serve the purpose of helping the worrier reduce uncertainty by focusing on the worst that could happen, so a sense of control and predictability can somehow be a comfort. However, because worrying reduces this sense of uncertainty, it reinforces itself, and we worry more and more, as a strategy for feeling more certain, and feeling as though we have at least some sense of control. Of course, the more we do this, the deeper the “worry” neuropathways  get in our brain, and the harder it is to extricate ourselves from this “worry” rut.

Recently, someone close to me experienced an intense treatment program for OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and has shared some incredibly enlightening information useful to me as a coach, and simply as a human being living on this earth, particularly in these “worrisome” times (OCD is like worrying on steroids!). While many people have tendencies toward obsessions and compulsions, the disorder can be extremely debilitating and can affect all aspects of someone’s life. While this is generally thought to be genetic, and relates to brain chemistry, its essence is really about the idea of certainty versus uncertainty.

When faced with a situation in which we may feel uncertain of the potential outcome, or perhaps we have to make an important decision, and there is uncertainty around consequences, an OCD behavior is to perform some sort of ritualistic behavior (hand washing, checking, asking a million questions, etc.) which help to reduce uncertainty and risk and feel more in control. The more this is done, the more obsessive the behavior becomes, which explains why OCD folks may end up with raw and bleeding hands, or consistently show up late because they had to keep going back home to check to make sure the door was locked.

What I have learned, second hand, about OCD treatment is that once an individual can be ok with uncertainty, their OCD behaviors will greatly diminish. Even though I had somewhat known this as a psychologist, it really hit home. One thing OCD people, or anyone who worries, does, is seek reassurance… either through behaviors such as hand washing (if I wash enough, then maybe I wont get sick) or through  over-asking others “do you think I made the right decision.” What I have learned is that giving reassurance is actually NOT helpful! When reassuring a worrier you are actually artificially reducing anxiety and attempting to offer certainty when there actually is none.  

While OCD is an extreme aspect of worry, as leaders we must learn to live with uncertainty, and model this for others. Here are some approaches that OCD treatment  taps into that may be helpful to the “garden-variety” worrier.

Maybe/Maybe Not  

“Maybe I made a helpful decision, maybe I didn’t.” “Maybe I will get sick, maybe I won’t.”

  • When  in the negative or threatening “maybe,” you let yourself feel the fear, the anxiety, the rapid heartbeat, etc., and then go to the more positive “maybe not” (or vice versa), and that reduces the anxiety… then back to the fear, then back to the positive. When done many times, the body starts to habituate, and the anxiety reduces, along with the need for reassurance, however it is being sought.

Validation Rather Than Reassurance

Validation offers support, encouragement, and normalization.

  • “It makes sense that you are feeling fearful in this unstable situation.”
  • “It is understandable that you don’t want to communicate with that team member, they are always in a confrontative mood.”

STOP “Shoulding” on Yourself and Others

  • A “should” creates an attachment to a specific desired outcome or behavior which leads to many disappointments, and endless worrying.

Practice Mindfulness

  • Pay attention to the present moment without judgment.
  • Focus on your breath to remain present.

To learn more about leadership and managing stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, schedule a consultation with Kathy.