Our human response to “not knowing!”

Recent events have reminded us of the challenges we face in “not knowing”. And how our reactions to “not knowing” are so varied and complex. This was compounded for me only yesterday, when I walked into my office and flipped open my Mac to be told:

“You have insufficient disk space!.”

Panic kicked in almost immediately as I came to realise that I couldn’t access my diary, contact people I needed information from – my own memory bank wasn’t capable of providing me with the answers I needed. I had no time for “insufficient disk space”.

Change, albeit sudden or incremental, is full of unknowns. Our need to structure, our craving for information, feelings of loss/excitement are natural responses to this.

In my own moment of uncertainty I felt anger at being let down by the technology and frustrated that I didn’t know where to go or who to call. On reflection, it reminded me of what happens when teams go through change – energy can drop, patience can run out, blame begins then turns to complete withdrawal.

This unusual moment with my Mac was a small drop in the ambiguity ocean of our world today. The media is doing a great job of reminding us of the impact of not knowing on a daily basis. The norm has become news bombardment of political chaos, trauma and how the future of work may not require us human beings any more.

“Not knowing” and “lack of disk space” is also permeating into our everyday working lives. I have many clients who are going through growth plans, mergers and acquisitions in order to deliver on their promises to customers, colleagues and stakeholders. These moves are grounded in good intentions however the “not knowing” can ripple through teams, anxiety emerges, and people may face the “insufficient disk space” sensation on an hourly basis.

Noticing my own reaction, I took to pen and paper. I donated myself some free time in my favourite chair (whilst waiting for a return call from an expert in IT who, no doubt, had all the answers I needed?) and began a creative process of writing down what fun I could have with “not knowing” about my day. I tested my own memory.

Uncertainty can appear all a bit doom and gloom; but it doesn’t have to. We can remind ourselves that “not knowing” is part of being alive, and by choosing our attitude towards it, and shifting our behaviour in times of multiple unknowns, uncertainty can become something that we celebrate instead of something that stifles us. As we have seen in the media, it can also do wonderful things for bringing people together.

“I need to learn how to be content with simply not knowing, and be at peace with the notion that everything does not need an explanation.” ANON

In our job at Chameleon Works we facilitate many team events that need that extra bit of “disk space” to think and respond to different stages of change. We often ask teams these questions:

1. What do you notice about your own response to ambiguity? And your team’s response? i.e. Is there a physical or emotional response?

2. What do you notice about your energy levels? Does it become your source of energy and motivation or deplete the zest in life?

3. What do you most need when you don’t know?

“When we crave security, we make ourselves more insecure.”

We encourage individuals to ask themselves – Do I fight the unknowns? Forcing structure and going head first into bumpy collisions as a result of my gut reactions. Do I freeze? Telling my team to hold back and “wait and see what happens.” Or do I throw the towel in? The flight response, where the obvious choice seems to be removing myself entirely from the situation.

When any of these happen, the likelihood is that we are overplaying our strengths. Strengths like determination, tolerance, and caution that could actually help us ride the ambiguous waves, if we use them wisely. And we need to do this – embracing ambiguity has been coined a business imperative of the 21st Century.

Here are other approaches that can help you and your team ‘reboot’ when you face ‘insufficient disk space’ or frustration at “not knowing”.

1. Notice

Notice the thoughts racing through your mind. Notice your mindset towards a situation. Notice how you’re feeling. Notice your impulse actions, and the consequences of these. If you took a step outside of yourself for a moment and watched your behaviour, would you see?

By noticing we provide ourselves with the information we need to choose what to do next.

2. Try the opposite

This is about showing yourself that you can approach a situation in more than one instinctive way. For example, if you notice that you’re spending a lot of time in “analysis paralysis” and mulling things over then go and take one immediate action. Start small and work up. Or if you find you’re being loud and boisterous with decision making then plan in calm reflection time with a notepad and pen.

By creating more behavioural flexibility we dial up our resilience to ambiguity.

3. Do something new

This is about being curious to explore new options. You can go to workshops, read different books, talk to someone new. You can also use play – release your inner child at work; approach meetings in a different way, run activities with your team, include fun competitions

By doing sometime new we can help with the boredom of uncertainty.

4. Try humour!

There may be a role for laughter to make light of the situation, laugh at mistakes and learn from them. The happy coincidence of doing something new is innovation. You never know what ideas will emerge, what new relationships will be formed, what doors will be opened. What you do know is that if you don’t change, it’s unlikely the situation around you will either.

Our experience in supporting and facilitating team events and coaching individuals is that talking, speaking out, giving yourself “disk space”, phoning an expert, all help!

The benefits of someone, like a coach, sharing space with you to explore your reactions, choices, and responses is immensely powerful.

Last week we tried something new and fun, collaborating with Scriberia to help Visualise Change and literally draw out what our feelings about change. The results were profound! Try it! We welcome your feedback. For more details about our team away days or coaching please email us via www.chameleon-works.com