Dealing with Uncertainty

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

HandlingUncertaintyConcept description

Merriam-Webster defines uncertainty as something that is doubtful or unknown, and handling uncertainty is persistent challenge in management.

Indeed, some specifications of job requirements, such as the CMHC Dictionary of Behavioural Competencies, include the ability to accept ambiguity and uncertainty in the workplace.

Patti Johnson (reference below) argues that any leader facing high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty needs to do apparently paradoxical things:

  • Get comfortable with the idea of not having all the answers;
  • Take steps to reduce the uncertainty.

On the first point, Johnson writes:

“Instead of feeling comfortable with the unknown, humans crave information that will make the ambiguous less so. The problem is that seeking more information sometimes feels like forward movement, when in reality, we’re delaying taking action because the information we need doesn’t exist or is so hard to find that we won’t get it in time.

“Business leaders must recognize this instinct and overcome it. It takes courage to walk into a situation knowing you won’t be able to judge your decisions until you’ve succeeded or failed. Develop enough self-knowledge to know whether you have a natural tendency to overanalyze or seek perfection. If so, set limits on yourself. Determine that you’ll gather as much information as you can in one week before making a decision, or restrict yourself to consulting no more than four people before acting.”

On the second point, she says:

“There are rarely “right” answers in business. But making a decision – even if it’s deemed imperfect later – has the benefit of reducing uncertainty for the rest of your company or team.”

Johnson concludes with:

“You can’t wait to have all the information before acting, and you can’t wait for the perfect conditions to set your course. Instead, take the initiative to actively manage uncertainty.”


Patti Johnson (2015), Avoiding Decision Paralysis in the Face of Uncertainty, Harvard Business Review, March 2015, at, accessed 27 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Handling Complexity (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 29 February 2016.

Image: Team Leadership Services, at, accessed 29 February 2016.