Regardless of industry, from upper management to entry-level, your employees, on occasion, must navigate uncertainty.
Uncertainty may seem like a recent concern, brought on by COVID-19, but the future has always been unknown, unclear, or ambiguous. Situations will emerge that have never been encountered before.
These often involve complex problems, where there are no obvious answers.
The outcome of uncertain situations is far more difficult than those seen with risk, as the outcome of true uncertainty cannot be measured or predicted. A risk can be calculated because it has occurred before.
When dealing with uncertainty, however, there exists no direct experience or competency.
To proceed forward means to look at existing data and make an educated estimate based on similar situations and experiences. And the quality of that estimate is based on the strength of your employee’s critical thinking skills and lifelong learning mindset.
Take the Example of COVID-19 and Uncertainty
A known disease is a risk. There exists experience on how to prevent and treat it. Childhood vaccines provide protection against numerous contagious diseases such as polio, tetanus, influenza, rubella, measles, whooping cough (pertussis), mumps, chickenpox, and diphtheria.
Not getting a vaccine for one of these is a measurable risk. There exists evidence about what the personal and public health outcome will be. The modern decrease in childhood mortality can be directly correlated to the widespread use of vaccines.
In contrast, COVID-19 was an uncertainty—a brand new disease.
The pathway of infection was unknown. At first, it was thought that, like other coronaviruses, it would be spread via contaminated surfaces. Later, it was discovered to be airborne.
How COVID-19 would infect the body was also unknown. In the beginning, the expectation was that it would attack the lungs, like previously known respiratory diseases. It has since been discovered that the virus can damage the lungs, heart, and brain, among other organs.
Science and medicine handle uncertainty by being prepared to pivot when new knowledge emerges, but to remain methodical about testing, comparing data, and reviewing evidence to try to reach actionable conclusions.
Scientists and medical practitioners are committed to evidence-based decision-making and problem-solving for prevention and treatment. They strive to remove assumptions from scientific/clinical inquiry, challenge, reject or modify hypotheses, and consider multiple possible solutions.
Science and Medicine are Not Carved in Stone
Facing the worldwide crisis of COVID-19, the normal timeline for research was accelerated. The privacy veil for scientific debate was ripped off to respond to an ongoing and evolving pandemic. The information-sharing process happened in months rather than years. Public protective measures and treatments evolved as scientific knowledge evolved.
The scientists and doctors did not make a mistake. They were thinking critically. They were learning. Changing their minds was part of the process.
Uncertainty is Part of the Job for Everyone
In other fields, uncertainty may not have life or death stakes, but it can still painfully impact the viability of your organization. Think about new government rules and regulations, shifting customer demand, competitive threats, and technology advances, and access to funding. The list goes on…
COVID-19 has created even more examples of business uncertainty. It has resulted in disruption of supply and distribution channels, early retirement of key employees, general labor shortages, questions of whether there will be a return to normal, hybrid, or remote workplaces for the future, among many other concerns.
There are no easy answers. These are situations that cannot be handled by a checklist of existing procedures, set rules, or a corporate handbook. This is when the critical thinking skills and the lifelong learning mindset of your workforce become central to the success of your organization. Fortunately, these are skills that can be measured, trained, and developed.
Handling uncertainty involves the motivation to think in working and learning, “The pace of change accelerates, multiple sources of information saturate our senses, the rules are rewritten, and problems arise daily that defy predetermined solutions. At a minimum, to be effective learners and successful workers, we must be willing and able to make informed, fair-minded, judgments in contexts of relative uncertainty about what to believe and what to do in a wide variety of situations.”
Like those employed in the practice of medicine, your workers need to act with flexibility, solve problems, and make the best decisions possible when faced with uncertainty.
This ability is better known as induction or inductive reasoning, which “relies on estimating likely outcomes. … Inductive decisions can be based on analogies, case studies, prior experience, statistical analyses, simulations, hypotheticals, trusted testimony, and the patterns we may recognize in a set of events, experiences, symptoms, or behaviors. Inductive reasoning always leaves open the possibility, however remote, that a highly probable conclusion might be mistaken. Although it does not yield certainty, inductive reasoning can provide a solid basis for confidence in our conclusions and a reasonable basis for action.”
Your employees need to make observations, spot patterns and connect these to plausible theories to determine the approach most likely to succeed, given the known facts. Yet, they must remain open to changing their minds, if further evidence or information emerges.
Business employees, overall, must be highly skilled in problem-solving in contexts of risk, ambiguity, and uncertainty—a scale measured by Insight Assessment. “Strengths in this reasoning skill domain lead the problem solver to find the solution that has the strongest likelihood of success, given the information at hand.”
Having strong critical thinking and a lifelong learning mindset prioritized in your culture (through hiring, onboarding, training, and development) is how to prepare your employees to respond to uncertainty. Not only will they be able to resolve problems and make sound decisions, but this also creates a sustainable pipeline for innovation.
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