Living in an Uncertain World

 “I can’t keep doing this!” My friend, we’ll call her Helen, was complaining about her work. It had been a while since I had last seen her—before the most recent downturn—and she was definitely worse for the wear. “My boss is crazy. His boss is crazy. The whole leadership team is crazy.”

“And when you say crazy, you mean… ” I asked

Helen thought for a moment. And then, in two simple words, she summed up what’s turning out to be the greatest cause of stress and dysfunction in organizations today: “They’re unpredictable.”


Sometimes her manager wants her input, other times he ignores her completely. One day she’s told a project she’s leading is adding tremendous value. The next day, the project is given to someone else to lead. One memo defines their strategy as quality-driven. The next memo extols the importance of speed to market. Some e-mails she sends out go unnoticed, some are answered, and some, she has no idea why, are perused closely, not for the content but for who was cc’d. “I spend more time staring at the distribution list than I do writing the e-mail. But I don’t know what I’m looking for because I don’t know what he’s looking for because he won’t tell me,” Helen said of her boss.

It’s not that her stress is so terrible at any single point in time. It’s that her stress is moderately bad at every single point in time. Because she never knows what to expect, her anxiety about what might happen next never goes away.

University of Michigan researchers Peter Ubel and Dylan Smith studied the happiness of colostomy patients, whose waste products come out of a tube inserted through their stomachs. To the researchers’ surprise they found that patients who had permanent colostomies were happier than those whose colostomies might be temporary. It turns out that the predictability of living with something as unpleasant as a colostomy is still better than the unpredictability of possibly having it removed.


It’s not the colostomy that’s so bad; we can live with anything as long as we know what to expect. It’s not knowing what to expect that’s hard to live with.

Which is exactly what Helen, like so many of us these days, is living with. How will my manager respond to this? Who should I include in my e-mail? Is this the right strategy? Will I have a job in two months? Since it all depends on the economy, what’s happening with the economy?

And that’s the problem. No one knows what’s happening with the economy. No one knows if his or her job is safe. No one knows if he can trust his vendors to deliver or his clients to pay. A company that had first-quarter profits of about $6 million had to write off $1 million—17% of their profit—because two of their clients went bankrupt. “The hardest thing about this environment,” their CEO told me, “is that you have no idea who you can trust. The warning signs aren’t there. One day they’re putting in a new order, the next day they’re out of business.”


We are unpredictable because we are reacting to a world that is unpredictable.

And we make the situation worse by trying to make it better. By trying to regain some control over the uncertainty by micromanaging it. But, of course, you can’t micromanage what you can’t predict. That just makes you more unpredictable. So, what should you do?

Get boring. Decide what you’re going to do, tell other people what you’re going to do, and then do it. Instead of waiting for issues to crop up, create a plan and then methodically, intentionally work through it. Define structure for yourself and stick with it. You’ll get more accomplished with less drama and less stress.


Reduce uncertainty by creating routines and following them. Make commitments and keep them. Clarify expectations and meet them. Make decisions and uphold them.

When the world around us becomes less predictable, we need to become more predictable. More intentional. Find your answer and stick to it. Reliably.

A well-intentioned CEO I know runs a midsize marketing company. He’s an idea guy. Which has helped him tremendously in building an idea-based company. But it hasn’t helped him in running it. Every week he has a new vision. When I asked one of his employees what she was doing to implement his latest vision, she said “Nothing.” Then she looked at me with a smile and said: “I’ve decided to skip this strategy and just wait for the next. It’ll come in no time.”


Finally he got the message. He knew he couldn’t trust himself so he created a team under him whose job it was to hold him steady and communicate a consistent, long-term plan to the organization. And that freed him up to spend more of his time developing great ideas for his clients.

When I was a kid I always lost at the game of tag. I remember thinking I was in the worst shape. Then another kid, a little older and much wiser, had the kindness to tell me it wasn’t my fitness that needed to improve, it was my strategy. “You run after whoever is closest to you at a particular time, switching from person to person,” he pointed out. “So you get exhausted but each new person you chase is fresh. Stick to one person,” he suggested, “and keep chasing them no matter what.”