The Devil You Know

Ever heard that old saying: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”?

I’ve had a jampacked few weeks facilitating strategy sessions up and down the country – in rain, hail and even snow! Even better, the subject matter has been all over the place – from regulation and infrastructure, to demographic change and economic development, all the way over to libraries and community empowerment.

One thing has been totally consistent though. Every session, without exception, has been with leaders and teams who are grappling with change and uncertainty and trying to respond to it as strategically as possible.

And almost every day, I’ve been hearing about scepticism to change, and resistance across the wider organisation.

“We need to be careful about using the word change”

“They just don’t like change”

“We can’t have change for change’s sake, people hate change here.”

Do you hear things like this in your team?

In a coaching session today, I had a client ask me “how do I get my team to let go and embrace change?”

I’m going to let you in on a secret: people aren’t actually afraid of change.

What we’re afraid of is uncertainty. More specifically: the unknown prospect of losing what we have.

Turns out, it’s not stability we want – it’s certainty. Uncertainty does weird stuff to our brains. When we’re dealing with the stress of an uncertain future, a flood of dopamine hits the caveman part of the brain and we start paying way too much attention to the things we aren’t sure about. It’s super stressful – and if it goes on long-term, it results in all sorts of bad stuff like insecurity, anxiety, depression and de-motivation. Not a recipe for productive and engaged employees.

Almost without exception, we are wired to prefer the certainty of a negative outcome to anything uncertain. I’ve mentioned before that fear is like alcohol – it clouds our judgement. We’re intuitively poor at calculating risk, because we value a potential loss twice as highly as a potential gain.

The bad news is: we live in a VUCA world and ongoing uncertainty is one of the only things we can rely on (ironic, eh).

The good news is: leading through uncertainty is a skill we can learn – and doing so will build better, stronger and more resilient teams.

How to: Lead Through Uncertainty

  • Take the power back – Foster a sense of control by naming all the known and unknown issues, and agreeing together what’s worth worrying about

  • Focus, focus focus -  Keep a laser focus on only the issues that hit the sweet spot of impact and influence. Keep an eye on everything else, but let it go.

  • Practice what you preach – nothing is more reassuring than a leader that walks the talk – and vice versa. Watch your language and behaviour!

  • Put people first – How people will understand and respond to change should not be a surprise, or an afterthought. Do the work up front to build engagement and communicate with intent.

  • Tell a positive story – Our minds are seeking certainty and meaning… so deliver some! Tell a story that builds meaning around uncertain challenges and motivates hope, optimism and excitement. People are going to make meaning regardless – so don’t squander the opportunity to frame it.

  • Keep it real -– a lack of transparency or authenticity engenders mistrust. Lose that, and you’ll struggle to bring it back. Provide information, don’t tell fibs and acknowledge your own fears and uncertainty along the way.


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