If only we could manage away uncertainty. If we could do that there would be no risk. If we could do that there would be no stress. And there would be no progress. There’s the rub.

John Sands has been a human resource leader at Unilever, Barclays and Littlewoods among others. He took me through the effects of the changing employer-employee contract. As he explained it, companies give workers job descriptions laying out what they should and should not do. Then companies provide steady salaries every week or month as long as their employees do those jobs. In this companies “manage uncertainty out.”

No worries.

Until things go wrong.

Then employers hit employees with “massive uncertainty,” announcing impending lay offs to boost profitability. On the one hand, this is part of the natural evolution of businesses as they move from a growth phase in which they need everyone to a more competitive phase in which they have to choose where to be best in class, world class, strong or just good enough. Average employees no longer fit into most of the areas in this scheme.

Employees tend to get upset when this happens, wondering what they did wrong or what changed. Sands tells people “Do not park your brains with your car.” His point is that employees should not get seduced into thinking they don’t have to think. Everyone should pay attention to what’s going on in the world around them so they can anticipate their own risks.


In Praise Of Uncertainty

Even if we could manage away uncertainty (which we can not do over time), we would not want to. As the Animal School Fable informs us, we need to let the rabbits run, the fish swim and the eagles fly. We don’t want a school of average ducks. Progress requires people to push the edges, challenge the status quo, break the boundaries into the realm of uncertainty.


Flipping The Conversation

Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan lay out a prescription in their book Selfish, Scared & Stupid. They suggest:

“Thinking Selfish is really a matter of coming from a position of WIIFT? (What’s in it for them?) But of course, we’re all selfish, so our default position is to focus on what’s in it for us. This goes far beyond command and control, or even an inspiring WHY, it’s about developing a capacity for human insight that allows you to frame your arguments in terms of their WHY.

Thinking Scared is simply understanding that fear drives all of our decision-making – it might be the fear of taking action or the fear of not taking action. These twin forces govern us, but they can also be marshaled and used as tools of positive motivation – the fear of missing out is perhaps the most potent sales tool ever developed, “Hurry… last days!!!”

Thinking Stupid is isn’t really an oxymoron; rather it speaks to our bias for a simple, easy solution. However, it is also important to understand that just as we make preferred behavior more obvious (like the big red “STOP” buttons on heavy machinery), we also need to consider how to make less preferred behaviors more difficult.

In the end, it is human nature to resist change, but this same nature can be used as a tool to drive the results we want if they are well understood.”



Make choices around which areas are ripe for breakthroughs and which areas require steady, reliable delivery.

Do help the people that need to be steady and reliable manage uncertainty. Give them the stability and relative safety they seek so they don’t have to worry and you don’t have to worry about them as they implement simple, cost-effective processes.

But prompt uncertainty where you seek competitive advantage. Alter the balance of consequences here so that the upside for these selfish individuals outweighs the risks they might fear and their bias to a simple, easy solution.