5 ways for leaders to handle uncertainty in decision making

uncertainty in decision making

Uncertainty can be extremely stressful in the workplace. In fact, uncertainty can even be more stressful than knowing for certain that bad outcomes are heading your way. That’s why dealing with uncertainty in decision making is a critical skill for anybody at work. However, the need for this skill is even more important as a leader or manager.

Why is there so much uncertainty in decision making?

Sometimes when I’m in a confusing, uncertain situation at work, I want to scream. Unfortunately, workplaces are complicated. Organisations are complex and the people within them are too. Your job is to navigate the complex sea of your role and make it through the storm unscathed.

Uncertainty in decision making comes from complexity, and with complexity comes risk. Risk of making the wrong decision can see leaders paralysed for weeks or months and unable to move forward. Estimation is hard, and involves dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity.

How long will the project take? How much will it cost? What is the impact on your team if you change the structure? None of these questions have easy answers. The only answer is “it depends”.

Have you ever tried to put together a business case for some sort of investment? If you estimate the costs too low, you may struggle to complete the project, even if it is approved. Estimate too high and your budget will be fine, but nobody will ever approve the investment in the first place!

There is uncertainty in every part of working life. Dealing with uncertainty in decision making never gets any easier. But you can learn to deal with uncertainty productively and stop it from paralysing you into inaction or stressing you unnecessarily.

Why is it important for leaders to be able to deal with uncertainty in decision making?

When you are leading anything, you are going to need to make decisions. If you are part of a team, but not leading it, you might be able to get away with sitting on your hands and waiting for something to happen.

But for a leader, you’re going to be held accountable for decisions and progress. You can’t just sit and do nothing. You need to show that you are taking action and moving forward. Otherwise the buck stops with you, and you’ll seem ineffective.

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Productive ways of dealing with uncertainty in decision making

I’ll be honest. Uncertainty annoys me. Grey areas, the unknown, call it whatever you want. It’s no fun. I wish everything could be clear cut.

Ever heard the saying “If something is easy, it’s not worth doing”? Don’t tell anybody, but secretly, I wish things were easy. Because it sure is a lot more relaxing!

So let’s make things easier. Here are some great ways of dealing with uncertainty in decision making, that I have learned during my career. Particularly helpful was my time in consulting, where problems are often murky and unclear at the very best of times.

1. Find a way to move forward

One of the most effective ways of handling uncertainty in decision making is to simply find a way to move forward and taking a concrete action to make it happen. Moving forward of course means making progress. It also means taking steps to eliminate uncertainty or gain information that will help to make a decision.

It sounds simple, and it is. Let’s pretend you are trying to make a decision but find yourself stuck. The first question to ask yourself would be “What information do I need that would make my decision easier?”

Can you get the information? Do you need to meet with people to find out the information? If so, then book in that meeting or have that conversation. It may not seem like much, but even booking in time to gain information is a concrete step that helps you move forward.

To reduce the stress of dealing with uncertainty, you need to eliminate the worry surrounding it. If you can show yourself that you are taking a concrete step to move forward, your worries will start to recede. Now you are able to tell yourself “No need to worry, I can’t do anything further until I meet with Jane next week to find out the information.”

Ask yourself the question “Is there anything else I can do right now?” When the answer is No, there is a good chance you’ve locked in a concrete step to eliminate uncertainty. Nice work.

2. Realise that uncertainty feels worse at different times

This week, I had one day where everything seemed uncertain. All my problems seemed overwhelming and I couldn’t get a clear answer on seemingly anything. However, I was also tired and if I’m honest, a little cranky.

Some days you will feel overwhelmed. On these days, you need to try your best, but realise that you will have a good day soon where your positive mindset will kick in. Handling uncertainty in decision making is far easier when you are feeling optimistic. Physical and mental wellbeing play a big part.

So when you are tired, cranky or feeling unwell, dealing with uncertainty can seem more difficult. Be kind to yourself. Realise that it will pass, and you will be better placed to tackle the prickliest of decisions on a different day.

3. Take stock of your options

Uncertainty in decision making can be reduced when you step back and look at your options. If you feel like you’re heading into analysis paralysis, stop and take a breath.

Think about, and write down your current options to move forward. What could they be? Doing nothing is always an option. Would that help and is it feasible? No? Cross it off.

Eliminate your options until you are left with fewer courses of action. Fewer courses of action means less analysis and less choice. Collaborate with others, get their opinions to help you decide.

Sometimes it is a good idea to present your “Do nothing” option to others to canvas their opinion. Most probably, they’ll exclaim that we “can definitely not do that”. If that’s the case, you have changed the decision making mindset away from inaction into one of action.

If you can’t afford to do nothing, then you know you need to do something. That’s progress.

4. Realise when you have done enough

One of the hardest aspects of dealing with uncertainty in decision making is realising when you need to take action. Analysis paralysis can go on for weeks, months and years. Some people try to keep analysing until they eliminate all uncertainty.

Unfortunately, eliminating all uncertainty is impossible. So you need to know when to act. You need to think about how much risk you can stand, and how much analysis is needed to eliminate the unwanted risk.

You will notice diminishing returns. After a certain point, the more you analyse, the less risk or uncertainty you eliminate. Eventually, you are not moving forward.

Realising when you have “done enough” is a judgement call of course. But keep it front of mind as you battle uncertainty, because you need to keep moving forward.

Another question to answer is:

Is making no decision really an option right now? Or do we have to take action?

5. Celebrate progress, even if you haven’t reached your final goal

Dealing with uncertainty in decision making can take time. You may have many options to move forward. If you have eliminated some of the options, that’s progress. That’s a win.

Make sure you celebrate even small wins with your team, when you manage to make progress. Eliminate an option? Success!

This keeps everybody focused on the positive factor that you are moving forward. Failing to move forward can result in frustration and loss of motivation. It’s important to keep your momentum up and realise your wins when you get them.

Dealing with uncertainty in decision making is never fun, but it is a necessary evil of work. You will never eliminate uncertainty, but you can stop it ruining your sleep, health and wellbeing.

I hope you find a way to move forward and make progress on those most prickly of decisions.

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