Coping with uncertainty: how you can improve

Uncertainty at work
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We've all got a plan. 1. I’ll get a job. 2. I’ll work my way up and 3. I’ll retire. But this traditional, linear model of career development is outdated in today’s world...

In the current gig economy we are more likely to bounce between short term contracts and freelance work, meaning the old ‘job for life’ mentality is as redundant as VHS tapes. Then there’s the constant threat of being replaced in your job by a robot, the worry that your department will become a cog in a far off country and the dreaded anticipation of waiting to see what the results of reorganisations will be.

Uncertainty is a fact of life at work, but if it’s a given in our career paths, why do we still find it so hard to deal with, and is there more we can do to make uncertainty work for us?

Job role uncertainty

Restructuring, reorganising, redundancy. Three words that are sure to strike fear into the hearts of any employee because of one reason - the uncertainty. Will I stay, will I go, who will my boss be, can I get another job? One of the main results of this type of uncertainty is stress and related reduction in mental wellbeing.

In an article for Work & Stress, Pollard found that employees’ psychological wellbeing was at its lowest just prior to a re-organisation, with the next lowest point being just after the re-organisation. And there were physical affects too with increased systolic blood pressure at these very same points.

Uncertainty in management

Another key area of uncertainty can come in leadership as employees prepare for new bosses, and even adapt to changes that see them managing or being managed by their old contemporaries. But we can also feel uncertainty in how we are led day-to-day.

A 2017 Academy of Management Journal article introduces some of Gordon Ramsay’s quotes to chefs, which (as you might imagine) are a curious mix of insult and praise. But what, they ask, is better. To have this uncertainty in how you will be treated, to be called “derp brain” in one moment then encouraged to believe in yourself the next.

Or to have consistently unfair treatment- yes, it’s unfair but at least you’re not on a Ferris wheel of highs and lows. They found that variably fair treatment was actually more physiologically stressful than always being treated unfairly. This suggests that it is the actual uncertainty of how we will be treated that most concerns us.

Be ‘happenstance’ about it

In a ‘tolerance of uncertainty’ article, Kim and colleagues discusses happenstance theory (HLT) which is how you take action, learn from and explore diverse experience to seize career opportunities that may come your way. The skills you need to have are curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism and risk taking.

By this theory, you have to factor unplanned events into your career development process, meaning that uncertainty becomes opportunity. Kim and colleagues found that happenstance skills are related to increased career self-efficacy, and also career satisfaction.

In other words that those with happenstance skills will be more confident in their ability to deal with the unexpected at work, but also more satisfied in their careers. They also found that happenstance and self-efficacy were related to high levels of tolerance of uncertainty.

The tolerant approach

So, you just need to be more tolerant of uncertainty. Easy to say but perhaps not as easy to do. A 2017 Journal of Career Development article by Garrison investigated the link between tolerance of uncertainty, career identity and life satisfaction in Korean college students.

Korean college students must compete in an extremely high pressure educational environment, yet their prospects upon graduation remain uncertain with over 41.7% not finding full time work. Career identity is the stability of your views about your career and associated factors like goals and skills whilst life satisfaction is your evaluations of your wellbeing.

They found that both career identity and life satisfaction are associated with tolerance of uncertainty. So, if you feel stable in your career choice and skills, you will be less anxious when uncertainty presents itself; you will be able to “buffer the negative emotions”.

Making uncertainty work

Going further along the path set out by Garrison then, worries over uncertainty could actually relate not to the uncertainty per se but to issues related to your own feelings about your career and skills.

Do you feel that you’re in the right career, are your skills as developed as they could be? If the answer is no, then uncertainty will surely de-rail you faster than someone who is confident of both.

When we’re proficient at what we do, but more than that, we have the self-efficacy to know that we’re able to deal with whatever life throws our way- inconsistent leaders, reorganisation or change - they become merely steps on our career journey that is no longer linear, but all the more interesting for it.

About Paul Russell

Paul Russell, Luxury Academy

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, www.luxuryacademy.co.uk, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi and Vishakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors. Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles across Europe, United States, Middle East and Asia. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.

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