Managing uncertainty at the workplace

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Laura Lillo Pulido

Laura Lillo Pulido

Forensic health psychologist

We have always had to deal with some degree of uncertainty in our daily lives. We constantly ask ourselves questions such as: What direction will our career path take? What will be the consequences of this decision? What will happen if…? What is more, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has only added uncertainty to everything, we have lost our sense of control over many aspects and we have had to learn to plan with the shortest of deadlines: today, now. 

This is also happening in the work environment. Do we continue to work from home? Until when? Or even simply, will I be able to keep my job? This uncertainty can cause us to feel that we have no control over our present or future situation and can lead to fear and anxiety

What is uncertainty

We can define uncertainty as a very intense fear of the unknown that can lead to anxiety. It is the origin of many insecurities and can cause us to question ourselves professionally, leading to the dreaded impostor syndrome – am I really a professional or am I playing a professional? The BBC defines this syndrome as the feeling that your work achievements are undeserved and that you are likely to be exposed as a fraud. 

Uncertainty in the work context can also be accompanied by ruminative chain thoughts: “I’m doing it wrong, I’m going to get fired, and if I don’t find another way out…” 

Forbes explains that “There is no greater life stressor than the uncertainty brought on by job loss, unemployment or underemployment”.

Living with uncertainty when it cannot be curbed

We cannot stop uncertainty, so living with it, learning to manage it and coming to accept it will help us. This is part of the role of a good leader, to be able to manage the changes caused by an environment full of uncertainty. 

Harvard Business Review recommends strategies for leading while the environment is uncertain: 

  • Embrace the discomfort of not knowing: our brains are hardwired to feel stress and discomfort in the face of the unknown. Learning to tolerate this discomfort and redirect it is key to success, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explains, “Leaders must shift from a foundation of -knowing it all- to a foundation of -wanting to learn it all-.”
  • Distinguish between complicated and complex: although they are similar concepts, they should not be used interchangeably. Complicated challenges can be broken down into small parts while complex ones will require multiple rounds of trial and error and persistence in the face of what resists.
  • Let go of perfectionism: sooner or later things will work out. As Embrace the Chaos tells us, it’s important to keep in mind that somehow, somewhere, sometime, it will work out. The path may change, or it may not be exactly as we had planned at first, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go well. 
  • Avoid simplifications and do not jump to conclusions: in situations where there is a lot of uncertainty, it is important to keep in mind that our thoughts are fallible and do not have the absolute truth. We can put ourselves in the worst case scenario without being certain about it, so it is important not to believe everything you think
  • Try asking for help if you need it: in any work environment there is a team of people working close to you. If you can’t handle a given task right now, if you’re not sure, or if you think you need some more help, ask for help, reach out. 

The vision of our Wemby experts

Carlos A. Martin, a psychologist specializing in psychotherapy and EMDR at Wemby, proposes some strategies for working with uncertainty in the work context. 

Issues to avoid...

  • Mind reading: not inferring another person’s behavior.
  • Anticipating the future: we cannot know what is going to happen, but we can plan and prepare for it. 
  • Putting ourselves in the worst case scenario: the human mind is designed for this and has a warning function. However, even if we imagine it, it is important to be clear that this does not have to happen. Our prediction will be affected by variables such as fear or uncertainty. 
  • Self-criticism: desirable to a certain extent because it can have a function. It can be constructive in the form of pushing us to learn new skills or destructive, and we usually apply the second one, being especially hard on ourselves “I am not worth this job…”.
  • Rumination: in relation to self-criticism we can end up changing negative thoughts. In this sense, it can help us to focus our attention on the here and now, set limits to try not to relive the work and feed our emotions based on pleasurable activities.

How to Cope?...

  • Identify the origin: what I feel, what I think and how I act. The capacity for improvement in a job is fundamentally there, to a greater and lesser degree. 
  • Flexibility: this is a tool that can be used to replace learned helplessness, change the locus of control, self-demand and perfectionism. The “I have to…” and rigidity will hinder us and cause stress and anxiety. 
  • Do not anticipate: we do not know what is going to happen so we cannot be sure of anything catastrophic. 
  • Communication: this is a fundamental issue to work on, as we explained in this article on Constructive Communication. It may be the only way to solve any conflict, the only way to avoid misinterpretations and to explain our position.
  • Proceed differently: if you can think differently, you can do differently.
  • Accept the present: sometimes, the only immediate option is to accept our existing reality, and even if it is not perfect, appreciate what is good about it. This will enable recentering and gathering energy that is essential to keep moving forward and in the direction that you want to follow in the future. 

From Wemby we hope to have helped you with this article to have a team with greater wellbeing and therefore, a happier team.

About the Author

Hi! I’m Laura Lillo, a forensic and clinical psychologist. I  strongly believe that psychology services should be accessible to all.  I’ve worked in prisons and with kids with risks of social exclusion. This has taught me the importance of constant learning and improvement as a person and as a therapist.

If I’m not cooking, drawing or singing, the most likely scenario is that I’m playing board games. Right now, I’m busy learning and writing content for Wemby, an online psychology platform. During my weekends I’m Game Master in Exit Madrid, a escape rooms company.

Wemby provides online therapy and wellbeing services delivered by experienced psychologists. Our team is here to help you start building your balance and emotional wellbeing today.

Download the app, complete a matching questionnaire and get paired with a therapist with the best licensed professional to match your needs.

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