Shifting our focus to what we can control turns the tables on uncertainty
Probably the most of you reading this are experiencing some level of anxiety about the current uncertainty regarding COVID-19 and its impact on the global economy, our freedom of movement, our work and businesses, relationships, and health. Since its beginning at the end of 2019, so many things have changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined before. I know I have felt very anxious at moments, about the future of my business in this new context. In those moments, it is easy to get carried away and lose focus. However, when I breath, relax, and zoom out, I know that in reality there always is uncertainty. However, through the current COVID-19 crisis, this all become more visible and got center stage. It’s easy to get caried away by the discomfort that can be triggered through uncertainty. Not knowing what will happen generates anxiety. ‘In response, you may freeze, analyze too much or act without thinking’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). It is therefore important to stay grounded in turbulent and uncertain times. In this post, I’ll try to share some tools that will help with this process.
As human beings, we want control, or at least have the feeling we are in control. The higher the uncertainty, the less control we feel we can exert on our environments. We thus experience a loss of control when things become uncertain. It’s worth reflecting though, how much control we actually have to begin with. When it’s all smooth sailing, it is easy to confuse that for control. Many times, we’re feeling in control while we are not. Similarly, many more times, we feel out of control about things which could be in our control. This requires us to objectively see things for what they really are and shift our focus accordingly. This is essential for dealing with uncertainty. Uncertainty involves not knowing what will happen. Our ability to deal with this ‘related to our willingness to let go of control and engage with what is’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). Control thus, whether perceived or real, and our engagement with the reality of the moment, are important elements of dealing with uncertainty.
Direct control, indirect control, and no control
All things we face fall in either one of these categories: things we directly can control (our own behavior and thoughts); things we have only indirect control over (other people’s behavior and thoughts); and things we cannot control (things we have no influence over, such as the past or situational realities). Direct control issues are solved by working on our habits according to Covey and are clearly in our circle of influence. Indirect control problems are solved by changing our methods of influencing and relating to the people around us. Following Covey’s work, this is about thinking in terms of win-win, seeking to understand before being understood, and synergize based on creative cooperation (Covey, 1989). No control issues require our acceptance of what we cannot change and taking the responsibility to smile in spite of it and keep our spirits up. In these cases, by accepting what we cannot change, we don’t empower these issues to control us. Most of our focus should be with things we have direct control over, through building our habits and practices.
Admitting we don’t know
Uncertainty leads to many new and unknow futures. This can paralyze us. When we admit we don’t know what to do, this opens up a path to trying new things. Also, ‘[a]dmitting you don’t know when other people expect you to know connects with others and demonstrates humility’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). When we admit we don’t know as leaders, we can tap into the knowledge of our teams, as people will be more stimulated to take part in finding the way. Similarly, when we admit doubt, this frees us up, and thereby helps us make better decisions. It allows us to ask for help and explore new pathways together. Silence and listening are important traits to cultivate when we don’t know. ‘Explore the unknown through doubting, asking questions, developing multiple hypotheses and talking to people from different disciplines’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). Through this, we can find opportunities instead of hiding behind a façade of pretending to know.
When we are experiencing uncertainty, it is normal we feel fear in the process. However, in many cases ‘we have so much fear around uncertainty that it actually hinders growth and prevents us from reaching our potential’ (Powell, 2021). To learn about dealing with uncertainty, I’ve spoken with Meridith Elliott Powell. I’ve also asked her about how she deals with fear in uncertain times. What she said very much resonated with me. Namely, that fear must come out. It has to be experienced. We must move through the emotion in order to become free from it. This was also mentioned by Dr. Faye Mandell in our talk about being present. Similarly, this came up when I spoke to Michael Kolb about honesty as a means for expressing what we experience in the present moment. Meridith Elliott Powell makes the analogy with a rip tide in the ocean. When you fight it, it ultimately will beat the fire out of you. Similarly, when you fight and resist your fears, you will make them worse (Powell, 2021). Instead, when we allow the fear to exist, and travel through us where it’s felt and experienced, the fear will move through us. This doesn’t mean that it is an easy thing to do. It’s not. But as Meridith states, it’s something we have to practice. It’s like a muscle that needs training.
Articulate your anxieties, worries, and fears
In our talk about dealing with uncertainty, Meridith Elliott Powell shared some very interesting points with me. The following really resonated with me, and I really want you to let this one sink in. According to Meridith, the most successful people are able to make a list of everything that gives them anxiety, everything they are worried about, and everything they fear. From there, they divide that list into things they can impact and control, and things they have no influence on. Think about it, how many times do we not worry about things, and get lost in our feelings of helplessness and anxiety? I know I’m guilty of that, more often that I’d like to admit. When instead of worrying, we articulate our worries, they become tangible and actionable. We can then objectively observe them and see things for what they are. When doing so, it becomes clear what is in our control, and what is not. It is very important to recognize what is in our control, and what is not. For we should bring our focus, attention, and efforts with the things we can control. I know from experience, that when I do this energy begins to flow again freely, anxiety disappears, and I become able again to make headway in a proactive and productive way. It’s such a simple thing to articulate what is disturbing our energy and focus (e.g., our anxieties, worries, and fears), but it has a huge impact and puts us back in the driver’s seat. Please give this a try, and write down what’s currently causing you stress, anxiety, worry and what you fear. After that, continue reading.
Where focus goes, energy flows
People that know me a little, have heard me say this more than once. I really believe in this. Where our focus goes, our energy flows. It is therefore of critical importance to recognize where we focus our attention. It would make logical sense to focus our attention on things which are in our control. In his book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (a must-read classic), Steven Covey introduces the circle of influence. There, Covey distinguishes between things we really can’t do anything about (in our circle of concern), and things that are in our influence to change and which we can control (in circle of influence). A proactive focus expands our circle of influence, and a reactive focus reduces it. In other words, positive energy enlarges the circle of influence, and negative energy reduces it (Covey, 1989). When we are focused on things in our circle of concern (such as for instance global politics, or exchange rates), we empower these things to control us. When on the other hand we focus to work on things we can influence, ‘the nature of [us] is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing [our] circle of influence to increase (Covey, 1989).
Obviously then, people who get ahead, overcome problems, and deal proactively with uncertainty, are people with a proactive focus on what they can control. In her book “Mindset”, author Carol Dweck argues people have one of two mindsets. Either they have a fixed mindset, or they have a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007). When you have a growth mindset, you believe can grow and develop and ‘that your discipline and commitment to practicing will determine your success’ (Dweck, 2007). For dealing with uncertainty, we need a growth mindset. According to Meridith, the most important thing for being successful is utilizing our ability to control where we focus our attention (Powell, 2021). We can control what we focus on by choosing, and this is a huge thing. ‘If we can stop fretting about the things we can’t control and shift our focus to the things we can control, it’s like magic’ (Powell, 2021). Choosing proactively where we focus our attention with the belief that we can grow and develop in the unknown and in uncertain times helps us keep a sense of control in the most turbulent of times. As stated by Covey, this leads to a process of positive enlarging and magnifying of our opportunities and chances.
Uncertainty demands flexibility and a willingness to adapt to what’s in front of you. Success relies in adaptation, and to adapt well, ‘you must follow three steps: See the need to adapt, determine the method to use, and make the adaptation in your actions and attitude’ (McKeown, 2012). This requires us to be open towards the world around us and to recognize change when it is happening. ‘One of the most direct ways of engaging with the unknown is the open inquiry and experimental methodology of the scientific method’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). This approach requires scientists and researchers to ‘follow a process of open inquiry and acknowledging when experimental results don’t match their hypotheses or expectations’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). In other words, daring to be wrong. It also requires curiosity and out of the box thinking to determine and identify the right course of responding, and finally, a willingness to change.
Pilgrims on the Il Camino pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain sometimes walk an additional 90 kilometers to Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic. The name comes from the Latin, “finis terrae” which means the end of the world. Reaching Finisterre, one reaches the edge of the known it is said. Beyond Finisterre, your journey of discovery begins (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). I really like this concept as articulated by D’Souza and Renner. We would do well when faced with uncertainty and turbulent times, to be more open and curious, and embrace the discovery beyond Finisterre, and to see uncertainty as the portal to the new and unknown, a place full of possibility and opportunity.
As Meridith Elliott Powel rightfully states, ‘we need to flip the script and think differently about uncertainty’ (Powell, 2021). We need to make a conscious decision to think of uncertainty as opportunity. Meridith mentions an interesting exercise she uses with her clients which helps with creating this shift. Namely, to look at the last 10-20 years, and reflect and appreciate all the things that happened, ‘out of nowhere, things you didn’t plan for, and the things these events brought into your life’ (Powell, 2021). If we don’t embrace uncertainty, we’re going to miss out on a lot of the good things that happen in life according to Meridith. And I agree. We need to embrace uncertainty wholeheartedly, and let it lead us to new prospects and possibilities, thereby letting the unknown, become know.
9 Step formula for dealing with uncertainty
For her book ‘Thrive: Strategies to Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage’, Meridith analyzed and studied a selection of companies that were founded in the late 1700s to early 1900s and are still in business and thriving today. These companies faced world wars, economic depression, two pandemics, and more turbulent and challenging times filled with uncertainty. Based on her analysis of these companies, their leadership and practices, Meridith identified a 9-step formula for dealing with uncertainty based on her research with these companies. She later on refined and polished these strategies after personal application due to the impact of COVID-19 on her business. Finally, she expanded her learnings for dealing with uncertainty on a personal level. find these listed below:
Be relentless about your vision. Be clear on where you’re heading, and why. It’s about seeing passed crises and uncertainty, and holding on to a bigger vision, believing in your success and its underlying why. A relentless vision is something you talk about, think about, and visualize every single day. This process helps to stay focus and automatically shift focus towards where it matters.
Condition yourself for change. Anticipate change, and don’t wait for it to happen. This is about being proactive and thinking about what to do now in anticipation of possible changes in the future. Tools like scenario planning can be very helpful with this process. It’s about appreciating change for what it is, a constant variable.
Get creative with collaboration. Quit competing, and instead start collaborating. Many of the challenges we face, in business and in life in general are too big to face individually. Instead, we need to seek out partnerships and work together. Save resources and time, and leverage available expertise and knowledge, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
Be clear about your core values. ‘Purpose and values lie at the center of our being’ (D’Souza and Renner, 2014). In the midst of uncertainty, making decisions can be very tough. Having a clear underlying framework of values can make all the difference in this regard and will help the decision-making process tremendously. In calm times and circumstances, make time for reflecting and articulating your values. From there, make your decisions based on your core values. In times of stress and uncertainty, this will make all the difference and give you a solid sense of direction.
Secure your base. Make money from the inside out, don’t chase any random opportunity in times of crisis and uncertainty, but instead focus on existing customers and existing relationships. In many cases of uncertainty and change, what worked before doesn’t necessarily work today. Therefore, learn from your closest customers and relations, and build your offering based on that. Problems that customers face change over time. Therefore, engage with them and learn. Understand that in changing environments, problems of customers change. Serve their new problems and stay relevant.
Build your network. It’s all about cooperation and connections. This is true in times of certainty, but most definitely also in times of uncertainty. When we tap into our network, we can solve bigger problems together and can leverage synergies.
Strengthen your team. Similarly, as with the important of building your network, a strong team is critical in uncertain times. Focusing on finding and retaining the right people can make the difference in tough times. This obviously includes strong succession planning. In times of crisis, investing in the team is more important than ever, according to Meridith. As she illustrates, when uncertainty hits, people disengage, they stop trying and pull back. Then, it’s the role of the leadership to upkeep morale and shift the focus. Invest in, and furlough people based on passion and commitment.
Shed fast and keep moving. What you’re doing now, won’t necessarily work six months from now. Markets change, the economy changes, and national and geopolitical forces can shift sectors and entire economies. I have experienced this first hand with my business in Myanmar, where the impact of COVID-19, and later a military coup completely altered the economy and many sectors within it.
Rinse and repeat. Consistently apply and reapply before mentioned 8 strategies over and over again. It is, according to Meridith a continuous process which requires a relentless focus and dedication.
When uncertainty hits, do you duck and take cover, or do you stand firm and look for new opportunities? Again, where we focus and how we perceive what is happening around us, is critically important. The majority of people take a wait and see approach to rapid change and uncertainty. As Meridith argued, when applying the before mentioned 9 steps, this will put one in a position of competitive advantage though a proactive and positive approach to change and uncertainty.
One last thing
Now, get back to that list you’ve made, about your anxieties, worries, and fears. Take a moment. Sit back, relax, zoom out, and reflect where you are in control, in indirect control, and where you aren’t. Now take a marker and highlight those items where you are in control. These are things which relate to your habits for thinking, being, doing, etcetera. This is your main focus. Then, take another color for those items where you are indirectly in control. In other words, which are dependent on the relationships with other people. There, aim to shift your focus towards creating win-win situations. Seek to understand before you try to be understood and seek cooperation instead of competition. For the remainder on your list? Smile, and accept what you cannot change. Enjoy!
Interview Meridith Elliott Powell
To learn about dealing with uncertainty, and how we can transform this into opportunity, I’ve talked to Meridith Elliott Powell. She is the founder of Motion First, a company that supports businesses in turbulent times and helps leaders change their perspectives for the better. Meridith brings hope and concrete strategies for dealing with uncertainty.
Meridith is also a motivational speaker, and the author and co-author of nine books, of which her latest is titled ‘Thrive: Strategies to Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage’. A book very fitting, and welcome, in today’s turbulent times.
I found Meridith through her work and books on Sales, and initially wanted to pick her brain on the topic of follow-up. However, her latest book on dealing with uncertainty made me want to ask her questions about that instead. Meridith, shared with me how we’re programmed to take uncertainty as something negative, and how we can turn this perspective around and perceive it as opportunity and use uncertainty to our advantage. Enjoy the interview!
Website of Meridith Elliott Powell: https://meridithelliottpowell.com
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