The Leadership Impact of Uncertainty

Learning how to get out of your own way and the way of others


Copyright © Catherine Hayes & Alan Robertson 2007. All rights reserved

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Transition Signals

One of the key findings in our research over the years has been that leaders who take an active role in understanding the nature of their responses to transitions tend to feel as though they can manage their experiences.  Where as leaders who allow themselves to be consumed by transition experiences tend to have a tougher time, which can also have severe implications for the people around them. 

It’s on this basis that we find that one of the most helpful strategies for leaders to work with Transitions is to try to make some kind of sense of what they are dealing with. 

People do not like to feel as though they walk round with a ‘bag on their heads’ and yet if leaders can’t make sense of their transition experiences then the ‘bag on head’ syndrome becomes a reality.  Leaders can unintentionally cause or bump into undesirable situations without realising what we are doing.  At best they make things difficult for themselves.   At worst they make things difficult for others.  If they can spot transition clues as and when they arise then they have more of a chance of making sense of what they are experiencing.  If leaders can make sense of what they are experiencing then they have more informed choice as to how they direct their thinking and behaviour and how to respond to the complex circumstances that they find themselves in. 


The Impact of Uncertainty

Transitions are always a journey into the unknown’ and with it leaders experience the by-products of uncertainty.  Not-knowing, ambiguity, paradox and complexity all create interesting facets and experiences, and where transitions are concerned its how leaders respond to them is what makes the difference.  For some, there are certain transitions that are exhilarating, not-knowing how a new assignment, project or new role is going to unfold is all part of the fun of the journey.  Having complex problems to solve and/or faced with situations where there are no ‘right or wrong’ answers is all part of the exciting challenge of leadership.  For some leaders the same situations can range from slightly disconcerting to anxiety provoking and in some cases completely unbearable. 


The Downside of the Upside

Our research over the years has revealed that each of us will have different tolerance rates for uncertainty and ambiguous situations.  What some people find relatively straightforward, others will find difficult.  Anxiety derived from ambiguous circumstances has the potential of transforming our most positive attributes into characteristics that derail our efforts, relationships and ultimately organisations. 

Factors that have made leaders successful can switch into traits that can make leaders and others unsuccessful if attention is not paid to how they respond to ambiguity anxiety.  Enabling characteristics can quickly become disabling characteristics and left unnoticed or overlooked the consequences short and longer term can be quite disastrous because they show signs, of diligence, duty, energy, healthy scepticism, Leaders employ others and others employ leaders.

Copyright © Catherine Hayes. All rights reserved

Copyright © Catherine Hayes. All rights reserved

Carefulness, objectivity, engagement, confidence, light-heartedness, colourfulness and imagination.  These are admirable qualities and ones that many of us strive to develop and at the same time, do we fully understand the implications of their shadow side?  All transitions involve some level of ambiguity and getting a handle on the level of tolerance for ambiguity and how leaders respond to ambiguous situations is a good start. 

We are now going to take a look at the shadow side of these qualities in more depth as it provides us with another key for understanding how leaders have the potential for getting in their own way, the way of others and also in the way of organisational success.  For this we have dug underneath the work of Derailment theorists Hogan and Dotlich & Cairo to explore the research of Karen Horney.  Horney proposes that under the influence of challenging and anxiety provoking situations people adopt certain strategies and patterns of behaviour that tend to fall within three primary categories:

  • Move Towards – to build protection to minimise the threat of criticism from others
  • Move Against – to control, dominate and intimidate others
  • Move Away – to avoid others


Each one of these strategies has its roots in anxiety and fear.  In an attempt to overcome fear people can unconsciously or unknowingly slip into adopting certain strategies and patterns of behaviour in order to support themselves to feel safe.  For example:


Move Towards

For some leaders when they are feeling perplexed, anxious and overwhelmed by a particular situation, being criticised by others is their worst nightmare.  They take any form of criticism as a personal attack that makes them feel lousy about their competence and credibility.  The impact of this underlying fear can result in:

Perfectionism – micro management of tasks and people.  The focus is on reducing threat by taking control away from others.  The belief is that in reducing or taking away control means that there is less of a threat that the leader can be criticised in any shape or form and this in turn keeps them safe.  The implications of perfectionism is that as leaders can demoralise and de-motivate their staff and colleagues and get in their own way by damaging relationships with others and take too much on by trying to do all the work themselves.

Placating – reluctance to challenge authority and/or take a position.  Challenging authority when they are feeling vulnerable is a high risk strategy.  In fact challenging any one and taking a stand is a risk.  If leaders upset someone then that will have a direct impact on them and open themselves up to the consequences.  The focus of keeping themselves safe can often mean that they don’t want to be seen to take any position.  The implications of placating others, is that they can appear ‘slippery’.  People don’t know what they stand for and as a result they don’t know where they stand with them.  This can have an impact on the leader’s capacity to build trust, which in turn can impact on their ability to build relationships. 


Move Against

For some leaders a way of keeping themselves safe is to control, dominate and if need be intimidate others.  The belief is that if they are in a position of control then they are reducing the risk of uncertainty and ambiguity because they are controlling their own environment and the people around them.  This fear driven strategy to control others can present itself in a number of ways:

Arrogance – adopting an all knowing position.  The underlying fear driver with this strategy is that if they confidently present themselves as having all the answers and ‘they are always right’ then they reduce the risk of being challenged and the anxiety of ambiguity and not knowing is camouflaged, that makes them feel safe.  The implications of this strategy are that they overlook the fact that nobody can always be ‘right’ all of the time.  They position themselves as being above others which means that they have difficulty in listening, a key skill in developing relationships.  They find it hard to hear the views and opinions of others and/or accept feedback.  This narrows down their opportunities to develop self insight and numbs their awareness of how their ‘all knowing position’ may be impacting their relationships with others.

Eccentricity – adopting the ‘off the wall’ position.  The fear focus here is that if they are different then they will become immune to ambiguity anxiety.  If they generate lots of new ideas that are different to the norm then they will have control over ambiguity as there will be many options to consider to be able to overcome it.  Therefore they keep themselves safe by keeping the impact of ambiguity at bay.  The implications of this way of thinking is that we can become self absorbed in their own world and generate lots of ideas and views that result in more confusion.  They appear unclear in their communication with others and present themselves as being ‘all over the place’.   As a result their attempts to be different, people find them difficult to understand and take seriously.  

Impulsiveness – unpredictable, unfocused and easily distracted.  The underlying fear in this strategy is that if they are impulsive and unpredictable, jumping from one thing to the next then they avoid the anxiety laden impact of ambiguity.  If they are constantly changing position they are safe as they don’t sit still long enough for the full impact of ambiguity to catch up with them.  The implications of this strategy are that they are seen as unreliable.  People don’t trust that they are going to deliver and follow through on their commitments as they are constantly changing their views, ideas and where they put their time and energy.  In their attempts to keep moving people question their commitment and capabilities to deliver workable sustainable results.

Maverick – the ‘boundary pusher’ strategy.  The underlying fear in this strategy is that if they are constantly pushing the boundaries and challenging others then ambiguity anxiety will dissolve.  As a result they won’t have to face ambiguous situations because they will use humour and challenge to defuse its impact.  They will keep themselves safe by pushing and stretching boundaries, breaking rules, and ‘flying by the seat of their pants’ so that they can’t be subjected to unified norms.  This is one of the most risky strategies of all, as they can be seen as a trouble maker with no apparent motive other than for the fun of it.  When this strategy is in full swing they can often take great delight in saying what we think without considering the full impact it has on their relationships with others.  They may feel confident to ‘stir something up’ and not realise how their playful attempt to shake the boundaries may have been misinterpreted.  As a consequence people will tend to give them a wide birth and not ask for input or views for fear of what they may gain in return.


Move Away

As the title suggests, the focus in this strategy is to avoid.  If they avoid others then they reduce the risk of complex, unpredictable and challenging situations then they avoid putting themselves in situations that are likely to evoke ambiguity and unpredictability.  As a consequence they think they have more of a chance of controlling the world around them and how relationships with others may or may not impact them.  This fear driven avoidance strategy can present itself in a number of ways:

Volatility – polarised emotions.  For some leaders the fear associated with the impact of ambiguity and uncertainty can fundamentally unsettle them and their emotions can raise havoc.  This can have dramatic impacts on their mood stability and their capacity for managing their emotions.  When challenging emotions get their grip, leaders can often not knowingly swing from being expressive to withdrawn without any apparent reason.  While this is likely to happen to most people at some point in certain transition experiences, if this is a repeating response pattern to ambiguity anxiety then it may create a challenge for the leader.  For those leaders who frequently act out their emotional volatility, then there is a danger that they may be perceived as short tempered, high maintenance and difficult to relate to.  The implications being that it affects their relationships with others, and leave themselves open to being misinterpreted and misjudged.

Distrustfulness – critical and distrustful of others.  Habitual distrust is a derivative of the fear of being hurt.  The anxiety associated with ambiguity and uncertainty can often leave leaders feeling vulnerable.  If they are vulnerable then they are also open to being hurt or badly treated in some way.  If they don’t trust others then they can’t break trust and then they won’t get hurt.  For those leaders who frequently act out this strategy they can be seen to be negative and focus on the downside, often saying NO before they have heard the whole story.  They can also be cynical and critical of others and perceived as defensive.  The implications are that while trying to avoid being hurt they can unknowingly create a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Risk Averse – procrastinator.  The primary fear with this strategy is getting it wrong and making a mistake.  In ambiguous situations where there are no right or wrong answers the focus of this strategy is to do as little as possible.  If they do nothing then they can’t get it wrong and avoid the associated consequences.  Being fearful of ‘doing the wrong thing’ results in us being slow to make decisions, they become resistant to new and different and avoid the unfamiliar.  They can often be perceived as awkward, difficult and reluctant to embrace change.  The implications of this are that they can be seen as blockers to progress.  People will navigate their way around them and exclude them completely in concern that we might get in their way.

Aloofness – the loner.  The fear driver with this strategy is relationships and the potential impact of situations and circumstances that are outside of the leader’s control.  If they don’t interact with others and put themselves into situations that may evolve to being outside of their control then they can’t be implicated in anything untoward.  In focusing on keeping themselves to themselves the leaders make themselves difficult to get to know.  People have difficulty forming relationships with them and don’t know how to interact with them.  The implications of this are that they take themselves off the radar screen.  The contribution that they make can often be understated, overlooked and they can find that they are excluded from projects and situations where we could make a valuable contribution.  This not only undervalues their worth it can also has long-term implications for their career prospects.


The Paradox of Control

If we step back and objectively view these strategies, what’s amusing is that each one of these strategies has a self fulfilling prophecy attached to it.  By adopting certain strategies to keep themselves safe leaders conjure up situations that have the potential for making themselves unsafe.  For example the move towards, strategy at best has the potential for damaging relationships and at worst can stop leaders from forming trusting relationships all together.  The outcome being, that they create the conditions for leaving themselves open to criticism in the first place.  By moving against others and trying to assert control, they unknowingly create challenging situations where people avoid them and don’t trust their motives, hence they can’t even control the quality of the relationship.  If they deliberately move away from others to avoid the ambiguous by-products of relationships, they create a whole panacea of misinterpretation and misjudgement as others find them difficult to relate to and get to know.  In short in trying to control things they end up creating conditions that can often be way out of their control.

Quantum physics and its derivative sciences have shown us that control is nothing more than an illusion.  Every day we face the unpredictable.  As the Buddhist Scholar Henepola Gunaratana points out ‘we view impermanent things as permanent, though everything is changing all around us.  The walls around you are aging.  The molecules within the walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything is shifting going to pieces and slowly dissolving.’  So understanding that the fact of the matter is that we can’t control things why do leaders put so much effort into trying to gain control? 

Well, most people like to feel in control of their environments, the circumstances they are operating and/or of themselves in some way, as it makes them feel comfortable and confident when they can make sense of things.  Leaders put processes and systems in place to provide themselves and organisations with some sense of order and structure for the purpose of avoiding total chaos.  Operating in a state of total chaos organisations, achieve very little, become dysfunctional and eventually self destruct.  The same principle applies to leaders if they unknowingly allow ambiguity anxiety to get a grip on them.  Patterns of thinking and behaviour can make leaders and the people around them successful and that the same time, their unknown and shadow patterns of thinking and behaviour have the potential for causing damage to leadership agendas and ultimately a leader’s career.


The Fear Fallacy

As we have hinted above the main culprit is our responses to fear.  Like control in most circumstances fear is somewhat of an illusion.  People self generate fear in their minds when we can’t make sense of things, when they allow themselves to be carried away by ambiguous circumstances they become fearful of the consequences.  Fear is real if we are about to be eaten by a large wild animal, we are hanging off a cliff by our fingernails or someone is coming at us with a machete, in these circumstances fear is life threatening.  If we are fearful of what may or may not happen in the future, or what will happen if we make a mistake or if we can’t solve a complex problem then fear is what we generate ourselves within our own minds. 

Self generated fear has many of the same symptoms as ‘life threatening fear’.  It affects the way we think, the capacity of our brains to process information, our heart rate, emotions and if experienced for prolonged periods of time our immune system.  For most of us who do not regularly participate in life threatening sports self generated fear is ‘real’ and we respond to its symptoms accordingly.  Self generated fear is the root of all organisational politics and leaders can often build and participate in their own fear movies that can result in ‘real’ less than optimal outcomes.  As we have explored with the moving towards, moving against and moving away strategies.

For some leaders the trigger is complexity, if we are trying to make sense of more than 7 plus or minus two pieces of information then feeling overloaded can evoke fear of being out of control and overwhelmed.  Another trigger is decision making capacity, where problems are ambiguous where there are no ‘right or wrong’ answers.  Then the fear trigger is what are the consequences if the ‘wrong’ decision is made?

Another trigger is the unknown future, what is going to happen and how is that going to impact?  If it is a particularly challenging transition it is likely to consist of all of these symptoms and many more.  Recognise any of these?

All of us at various points in our working lives are subjected to self generated fear and its ‘delightful’ symptoms, in the contemporary world of work it’s a normal common experience.  Having said that just because self generated fear is common doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything about recognising, managing and working with it. 

We find that if we can make sense of ambiguity anxiety and its associated fear then we have more informed choice as to how we act and respond to ambiguous situations. 


So What?

We have explored the facets of transitions and the impact of uncertainty and by now we expect that you are starting to get some insights into the numerous options that are available for leaders to get in their own way.  The main question being, so what do leaders do about it?  What do they do when they are faced with ambiguity anxiety, knowing that their fear can get them and others into trouble and their best efforts to try to control things are likely to come back and bite them?  The most direct answer is to get some kind of handle on what they are dealing/not dealing with.

One of the most disorientating factors of transitions is that leaders can often feel overwhelmed by the emotional impact of not-knowing and uncertainty.  In order to make sense of what they are dealing with we find its helpful to work through a process.  In the same way that incrementally ambiguity anxiety creeps up on us, we can apply a step by step process for unpicking its complexity in trying to make sense of it.  To achieve this we use a ‘seeing strategy’ a way of putting a frame around the ambiguity and breaking it down into sizeable digestible chunks. 


The Seeing Strategy

We have developed this strategy from the work of Painter and Illustrator Betty Edwards, who teaches people how to paint.  In the same way that learning to paint starts with a blank canvas the same principle can be applied to ambiguity in that by its very nature ambiguous circumstances can often appear to have qualities of nothingness.  The basis of the ‘seeing strategy is to explore the:

  • Edges where does the ambiguity begin and end?
  • Spaces – where are the gaps and spaces in the not knowing?
  • Relationships – what impact is this having on our relationships?
  • Lights and shadows – what is positive and negative about this ambiguity?
  • The whole – what is the overall what is the impact of this ambiguity?



When leaders or any one of us are feeling intellectually or emotionally overwhelmed its quite easy to switch into generalising things as the ambiguity anxiety becomes all consuming.  For example, ‘everything, is too much’ or everything is ‘all out of control’.  We find that when we are in this type of sense making process its helpful if we can ask a few questions:

1. What specifically is it that we are anxious about?  For example:

  • Too much or too little information?
  • Not being able to make decisions?
  • Not being able to see how things are going to work?
  • An unclear view of the future?
  • Not sure which step or path to take?
  • Feeling out of control?
  • Feeling overwhelmed and/or perplexed?
  • No right or wrong answers?

2. Why is this ambiguity important and why does it matter so much to us?

3. What are the ‘real’ consequences of the ambiguity?



Not-knowing can be a major trigger for a number of people and for some drive them crazy.  The fact of the matter is that we can’t always know everything all of the time and when we are feeling the impacts of ambiguity anxiety it’s easy to forget this and feel we ‘should’.  As with exploring the edges its quite easy to put everything into one bucket and not pay attention to where the gaps and spaces are in the not-knowing.  Exploring the gaps and spaces helps us to gain perspective, for example:

1. What about this ambiguous situation is known and what is unknown?

2. What specifically is the unknown connected or related to?

3. What additional resources can we draw off to try to make sense of the unknowns?



In this context relationships has two meanings – with others and with things.  In terms of relationships with others, it’s helpful for us to question how ambiguity anxiety may be associated with or impacting our relationships with others.  For example:

1. Who is connected to this ambiguity?

2. What is the nature of the relationship?

3. How might they be impacting this?

4. How might they be impacted by this?

5. Has the relationship changed in any way, and if so in what way?


In terms of relationships with things it’s helpful to gain an understanding of the context of the ambiguity anxiety.  For example:

1. What is this ambiguity connected to? (e.g. projects, agenda, strategy, business)

2. Is the ambiguity connected to anything else?

3. What are the implications of this?


Lights and Shadows

When we are feeling anxious we can often fall into an ‘either or’ thinking trap.  Either everything about the situation is negative and we can’t see hope, alternative options and/or possibilities.  Or we lull ourselves into a false sense of security by adopting the ‘world is good’ view and bury our heads in the sand not wanting to explore for fear of what we might find.  In trying to get a handle on ambiguity anxiety it’s helpful to explore light and shadows of the situation.  This supports us to be more attuned to what we are trying to deal with and can often provide us with possibilities that we hadn’t thought of if we had focused our attention on just one perspective.  For example:

1. What’s working in this situation and what impact is this having?

2. What options and possibilities are there to be gained from this ambiguity?

3. What are the advantages of this situation?

4. What’s not working about this situation and why?

5. What are the implications of this?


The Whole

As we break down the ambiguity, tease out and unravel its complexities we start to gain a new/different perspective of what we are dealing with.  A new perspective tends to make it easier to take more of an objective view of the whole and we are able to get our heads around what specifically we are trying to make sense of.  When we can see the edges of where it begins and ends, what it impacts and is impacted by, it’s light and shadow characteristics we are less likely to be carried away by our overwhelming emotions.  We can think more clearly and we are more resourceful to ourselves and others in how we respond to the ambiguity. 

We would just like to point out that the seeing strategy is not a ‘fix all’ and as a result there are likely to be some situations and circumstances that no matter what we do we can still be unnerved and unsettled so then what do we do?


Engaging Others

Ok so we unpick the ambiguity, start to make sense of it and we still don’t like what we see or how we feel about the situation and we are finding it difficult to manage what we are experiencing.  Old ways of coping don’t seem to be working and we are feeling out of our depth.  At this point, it’s about admitting to ourselves that we are at our limits and when we have hit our limits then it’s about taking the situation into a bigger context and enlisting the input, ideas, views and support from others.  Engaging others requires that we are truthful to ourselves about where we are at.  Being truthful to ourselves requires us to accept that:

  • We all have limits
  • That having limits is NOT a sign of weakness
  • That having limits doesn’t mean that we are stupid or incapable
  • Just because we can’t make sense of it doesn’t mean that the perspectives of others will not be valuable
  • Asking for support and advice is not the end of our management/leadership career


We make these points because of the number of times that we have alerted ourselves and leaders over the years.  A myth that has been floating its way around the corporate world is that leaders ‘should’ have all the answers.  The consequences being that leaders can give themselves a very hard time if they believe this. 

It’s interesting how when we examine the underlying assumptions when we expect ourselves to have all the answers to everything that our egos promote us to a position of a super hero.   Yes, expecting ourselves to have all the answers all of the time means that we adopt a position of arrogance.  Something that we all do from time to time and something that none of us like’s to admit to.

Having all of the answers all of the time is impossible.  The intricacies of organisational life are far too complex.  It also means that any one leader would have to be doing every role at every level of the hierarchy to fully understand the intricacies of the work so that they fully know and understand everything!  So when we look at ourselves from this perspective how silly does this sound?  And yet for a lot of leaders this is a torturous position that we frequently see being played out again and again.

All managers and leaders experience different degrees of ambiguity anxiety throughout their working lives, which in short means that it happens to us all.  It’s also the fact that some transition experiences are more complex and anxiety provoking than others.  So regardless of our capability for working with ambiguity the chances of being affected by its associated anxiety at some point in time is quite high. 

What we are saying here then is that there is also another factor to be aware of, which is the nature of the not-knowing, ambiguity and complexity of the transition itself.  Some transitions are complex and overwhelming and trying to underestimate or ignore their impact can have untold outcomes.  In being truthful with ourselves and putting the ambiguity into perspective we avoid looking suspicious by trying to cover things up.  Whether we want to believe it or not, scientific research has revealed that our radar is very sensitive to inauthentic behaviour.  And in our best attempts to hide or cover things up we can reveal more than we think.  If we are truthful to ourselves then we can be more truthful and authentic with the people that we engage to support us.  If we are open and authentic then people are more likely to want to support us.  If we hold ourselves back then we appear inauthentic and people distrust our motives.  This puts us straight back into a self fulfilling prophecy, which is likely to create more ambiguity anxiety and compound the situation we are trying to work through.

To answer the main so what question, what does working with our transition experiences require of us?

1. Learn to understand how we respond to uncertainty:

  • explore how we respond to ambiguity anxiety and its implications
  • review what do/don’t we like to control
  • explore or fear triggers and response patterns
  • use the seeing strategy

2. Be truthful with ourselves and others

  • acknowledge our ambiguity anxiety
  • express our not-knowing to others


So what we have attempted to achieve in this paper is explore the various avenues and routes for how transitions can lead us knowingly and unknowingly to us getting in our own way and the way of others.  We have focused on providing a number of different strategies and perspectives that support us to make our implicit experiences explicit experiences.  Our intention in taking this approach is to support leaders in being more resourceful to themselves, the people around them and ultimately organisations.


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