How to Turn Uncertainty into Opportunity

Leading Others

22nd November 2021
Paul Coates

Do you remember back in March 2020 when many of us thought it “would all be over by September?”. Now we’re entering our second COVID-19 winter and talks of a ‘Plan B’ hang overhead, a warning writ large that the social and economic uncertainty isn’t easing just yet. In business as in life, change is inevitable, imperative even…but the difference is stifling uncertainty doesn’t have to be.

Human beings are wired to search for risk round every corner and mitigate it. In the face of consistent uncertainty, we come up with concepts we can make sense of, like the “new normal”. We recruit the alphabet, with our Plan As, Bs, even Cs, to give misfortune or ‘failure’ a semblance of order. Grappling for understanding, we seek control, familiarity, trends we can understand.

Basically, people love predictability. This may not seem like a helpful statement when talking about change, but the good news is that behind the wildly oscillating human experience of change, there is in fact a predictable pattern. One that can be engaged with deliberately, and leveraged effectively to help employees overcome their discomfort, embrace opportunity, and reach desired results quicker.

Leaders who understand this pattern don’t just hope their people take to new processes, but purposefully engage them in the realities of the change.

But what does that look like? When talking about turning uncertainty into opportunity, ultimately we can’t escape the fact that people-including ourselves- naturally react to even the same change differently. Here is what  our recent global research and experience tells us all successful leaders need to know about the choices and influence they have, when it comes to the human element of change.

First, understand that all reactions to change- from resistance to engagement – are normal

The human condition is a contrary thing. We are ultimately built for adapting- and some of us are great at embracing that skill- but many of us instinctively resist change. Even change that we choose or see coming can prove difficult for us; it still means ‘different’, and ‘different’ often means uncertain, even scary.

There have been innumerable studies done on the psychology of change. I read a BBC Work Life article recently that found the impact of uncertainty to be so strong that people will even avoid positive or “potentially profitable” situations if they involve any element of unpredictability.

This phenomenon is reflected in the research FranklinCovey has undertaken over the last two decades, around the response to change. The findings are deeply challenging. When asked about a change they were experiencing at work, right now, a global audience responded as follows:

  • 72% of people said the change they were experiencing would make things worse for the organisation.

  • 88% of people said that the change they were experiencing would make things worse for them, personally.

That’s a huge majority – up to 9 out of every 10 people – responding negatively to change.

Assuming the worst is a normal form of self-protection, but it can also hamper progression. Others may be less resistant and more hesitant, waiting to see what their colleagues think first. Some people simply opt out, and of course, there are those amongst us who are able to move with change quickly.

There is a whole scope of complex, human experiences of uncertainty. As such, great change leaders are those who are able to manage all these potential reactions and stop them from taking over- for both themselves and their team.

Understanding the pattern enables leaders to consciously move themselves and others forward

The challenge of leadership is one of balance; the balance between managing your own experience of uncertainty and being the guide for other people. As a leader, you set the tone of change, and success will become slippery for you if you do not set it intentionally.

Fortunately, FranklinCovey’s Change Model is a powerful sense-maker. By understanding the predictable pattern of change, we’re given the ability to consciously track, diagnose and empower both our own, and our team’s, movement through change by cultivating four key skills:

To prepare

Our experience of change begins before change even happens. We call this the Zone of Status Quo, which is when it is most easy to become complacent. That is why first and foremost, leaders need to learn to look inward and become aware of how they and their team typically approach both their day job and projects generally. Are you typically curious? Over-ambitious? Tentative? How about your team? How does your approach influence theirs?

To clarify

When change is introduced – whether externally, internally, by choice or by imposition, we enter what we call, the Zone of Disruption. In this zone, performance is disrupted by confusion and the results we’re used to get begin to dip. Whether you’re feeling frustrated, disorientated, vulnerable or excited, success depends on you getting clear on three things:

  1. What’s changing?
  2. Why is it changing?
  3. What does the change mean for me?

The answers should take you to the Point of Decision. This doesn’t mean you know everything. It just means you’ve gotten clear enough to move forward and engage with the change effectively.

To persist

Dealing with change frequently feels like two steps forward, one step back. Once we have committed to the change we move into the Zone of Adoption, where we think we know what it takes to make it work. This is when most change fails.

Half the time change just doesn’t run its course the way we expected and planned for. That’s adoption. It’s a familiar formula- Plan A’s and B’s. Try, fail, learn, recommit, and try again. That’s persistence.

To explore

At this point we have a choice. The change has stabilised, and it requires less effort to maintain. We could use our newfound stability to enter another status quo, or we could push for further innovation. We can explore what’s possible now. What potential innovation has the change enabled?

For some changes, a new status quo might be a big victory. For others, exploring the Zone of Innovation is where we can find even more opportunity.

How effectively you equip yourself with this awareness and skillset will determine whether or not your leadership enables transformative results that build people up, or creates difficult experiences of change that wear them down.

Successful change means sustainably engaging hearts and minds

If I were to pinpoint your change initiative’s failure to one statistic, it would be this:

68% of people surveyed by FranklinCovey believed that the change they were experiencing required them to do nothing differently and behave no differently.

As a leader, you need to minimise the cost of a change, which, in light of the 68% of people who believe they can show up and keep doing their job the way they always have, tempts us to be super-efficient and tell people what to do. Resist this instinct.

The buy-in required to make change stick depends on your people having the time and space to- as I identified- prepare, clarify, persist, and explore with understanding, commitment, and self-belief. Here are just a few of the ways leaders can enable that to happen:

Do:

  • Frame change as a compelling story. Whilst in the Zone of Status Quo, leaders need to scan the horizon for the forces of change and communicate it in a way that relates to their team’s roles, empowers their influence, and builds their confidence.
  • Give people a chance to express their feelings. Be intentional about making time for 1-on-1 conversations dedicated to naming challenges and weighing their excitement against their anxiety.

Avoid:

  • Dictating the change to your team. Dictation doesn’t help team members reach the clarity they need. Especially during disruption. The role of a leader is to create dialogue, not monologue.
  • Suggesting people need to “try harder”. Great leaders seek out their team’s struggles to understand them. They do not dismiss or ignore them as trivial, transitory-, or worse, as a result of people not “giving 100%”.
  • Over-focusing on either disaster or ideal scenarios. Both prevent you from having a balanced view of the situation and make it easier for you to miss moments that warrant celebration or overlook challenges that need your attention.

Remember, you can’t force somebody to commit, or to change

Change only succeeds when your people make the choice to commit. Your role as a leader is to create the conditions that let each individual on your team reach the Point of Decision. You provide information, offer a vision that’s meaningful for the team, and help people get clarity about what the change means for them.

I know, and you know, that people have the potential for remarkable, surprising, unprecedented effort and achievement. Great change leaders clear the path to unleash that potential.


To learn more about FranklinCovey’s research into managing the human response to change and what it takes by the leaders in your organisation, watch a webinar now.

Author

Paul Coates

Paul is the Head of Consultancy at FranklinCovey across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. As a commercial and strategic learning and development leader, consultant, facilitator and change coach, Paul’s dual passions are people development and organisational impact. His relationship with FranklinCovey has been rich, working with us as a client for over a decade implementing a broad range of solutions to develop leaders, teams and individuals in building both personal contribution and business impact, before bringing his cross-sector experience in change, talent, learning and development to us as a consultant here at FranklinCovey.