How to Deal With Uncertainty in Business: 3 Tips

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Managing Transitions" by William Bridges and Susan Bridges. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are things changing at your place of work? Do you know how to deal with uncertainty in business?

When you’re managing transition at work, you’ll hit a stage known as “the neutral zone.” In Managing Transitions, Susan and William Bridges refer to this as a time period when the organization is in between the old way of doing business and the new.

Continue reading to learn how to deal with uncertainty in business.

Strategies to Manage the Bridge

The neutral zone, or better known as the “bridge stage,” can be short, but depending on the scope of the change, can last for years.

This stage is especially challenging because everything is changing and uncertain and not everyone is on the same page. However, the bridge stage is also full of opportunity. When so much is up in the air, people are more likely to ask questions, experiment, and challenge established workplace patterns and systems. For this reason, the bridge stage is the most creative stage of the transition process. 

(Shortform note: In Uncertainty, Mark Runco suggests that creativity isn’t just possible during a period of uncertainty—it depends on uncertainty. When our lives are stable, there’s very little impetus for change or innovation. However, when that stability is threatened, we experience doubt which in turn causes us to contemplate a broader range of possible outcomes that will require us to act in unfamiliar and creative ways.)

So how can you help people learn how to deal with uncertainty in business while taking advantage of the rich creative possibilities?

1. Plan Ahead for Challenges

The first strategy the authors recommend is to create structure when possible. The bridge stage is characterized by uncertainty. The systems from before don’t exist and the future systems aren’t yet in place. You can protect stakeholders from some of this uncertainty by creating temporary structures until changes have been fully implemented. For example, you might have new short-term policies or procedures, a reconfiguring of teams, or additional training for supervisors and people transitioning to new roles.

As you plan ahead, set realistic expectations. In the bridge stage, a lack of familiar systems and ways of doing things will likely cause productivity to suffer. Create short-term and realistic goals that acknowledge that people do not have the systems in place that will allow them to meet pre-transition output.

(Shortform note: John Kotter reframes the idea of setting “realistic expectations” as providing short-term benchmarks. He emphasizes the importance of team members seeing tangible progress toward long-term goals. For Kotter, it’s not just about managing expectations, it’s about breaking down large goals into more manageable steps, so everyone can see the progress being made. He also points out the importance of publicly celebrating those benchmarks when they’re met to fuel team motivation.)

Finally, remember to anticipate discomfort. People don’t always expect the discomfort of this stage in the transition process. They imagine moving smoothly from the old to the new. But this stage of the process is distinct and important. Remind stakeholders that the confusion and disorientation are normal and temporary.

(Shortform note: One strategy for dealing with discomfort is to approach it with curiosity. Tamar Chansky recommends thinking about being in discomfort as an opportunity to gather information about yourself. Ask questions about how you’re feeling and why. Staying curious about our own emotional response to change can help us manage our resistance to it and take it as an opportunity to increase our self-awareness.)

2. Lead Your Team With Empathy

The bridge phase is characterized by uncertainty. Planning ahead can help mitigate some doubt, but leading with empathy is especially important during the potential chaos of this stage.

Leaders can start by prioritizing relationships. The authors point out that the doubt and uncertainty of the bridge stage can lead to feelings of isolation. Prioritize providing opportunities for stakeholders to strengthen their sense of identity with the organization by connecting intentionally with one another, whether through a team retreat or more informal after-work happy hours.

(Shortform note: The upheaval and uncertainty of the bridge phase have the potential to compromise team members’ trust in the organization and each other. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni identifies a lack of trust as one potential root cause of team dysfunction. Prioritizing relationships is not only about facilitating social connections, but also sustaining and strengthening trust within your team.)

Also remember to encourage risk-taking and creativity. The bridge stage is already primed for creativity. Giving people permission to experiment and take risks will communicate trust in your team and strengthen relationships. You can amplify your team’s creative potential by providing opportunities for reflection, encouraging learning and experimentation, listening and responding to generated ideas, and resisting the urge to prematurely seek conclusions. The best place to start is by setting the example yourself. For example, host a brainstorming session with your whole team. Invite new ideas, no matter how outside the box.

(Shortform note: Research has shown that people consistently misunderstand the creative process. There is a common misconception that our creativity declines over time. In fact, the opposite is true. The more time spent ideating around a question or a challenge, the more creative we become. By not seeking premature conclusions, you’ll ensure that you don’t miss out on powerful or transformative ideas that emerge towards the end of a brainstorming session.) 

3. Communicate With Intention

Communication is key to learning how to deal with uncertainty in business. In the bridge phase, it’s easier for communication channels to fail as people wrestle with the implementation of new systems.

During the bridge phase, be intentional with how you talk about change. Is it a slog? A hurdle? Chaos? Try reframing it. Maybe it’s an opportunity to regroup? To take a deep breath? A time of germination? Language matters, so be clear about how you talk about this stage with your team—otherwise, you risk your team believing that the uncertainty of this stage is a reflection of poor decision-making and management.

(Shortform note: Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, speaks to the importance of reframing challenges as opportunities for growth rather than setbacks. Dweck argues that we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about challenges only as opportunities for failure. This is an example of communicating a fixed mindset in which the only two possible outcomes are success or failure. Communicating a growth mindset allows us to see growth, rather than perfection, as our measure of success.)

Also continue to monitor the transition. William and Susan Bridges suggest using a “Transition Monitoring Team”—a small group that represents multiple roles and levels of seniority within the organization. The team is responsible for getting a sense of how the transition is going and communicating relevant information to upper management. Whether or not it makes sense for you to implement a Transition Monitoring Team, it’s important to find a way to keep channels of communication open within the organization during this stage of the transition.

(Shortform note: John Kotter also recommends forming a “change leadership group.” Like William and Susan Bridges, he suggests that a change leadership group should be representative of every department and level of leadership within the organization. According to Kotter, developing a representative change leadership team will help secure organization-wide buy-in as changes are implemented.)

How to Deal With Uncertainty in Business: 3 Tips

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  • A guidebook for any leader that wants to survive organizational change
  • How to go through the three-step emotional process of transition
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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