Five Tips for Coping with Uncertainty — and Finding Opportunity

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Clouds of uncertainty hover over the Western world. The consequences are stalling action. Companies are sitting on piles of cash, several CEOs have told me, as they wait for a resolution to the debt crisis before deciding what and where to invest or whether to hire. Job creation is slow and unemployment high, leaving millions uncertain about their futures. Europeans wait for a resolution to financial woes from the south affecting the north, and in a safe, sane Nordic country, Norway, fear rises from a seemingly insane terrorist shooting that cost nearly a hundred lives. Safe harbors have uncertainty, too.

Companies can make strategic choices once they know what conditions will apply — will laws change, will taxes be raised or lowered, will interest rates go up or down? You could be a CEO weighing factory location decisions in the U.S. or abroad, or a retail entrepreneur deciding where and when to open more stores. Waiting for decisions that provide a direction, any direction, can be paralyzing. Motivating people to try something new, or to get on with innovation, is tough when the rules of the game are up in the air. Uncertainty is one of the primary reasons that people resist change. People are relatively adaptable once they know what the situation is, like it or not.

Perfect clarity is not always possible, and leaders are not always in control of events. But that doesn’t mean all the action must stop. Here are five tips for managing under uncertainty.

[Actually, here are three. To read the complete article, please click here.]

Provide certainty of process. Even if we can’t tell people what the outcome will be, we can provide clarity about when information will be provided. A calendar filled in with communication dates can reduce some of the anxiety of uncertainty. It’s good leadership to overcome reluctance to say “I don’t know,” and instead to engage people in discussion about the situation, letting them know when they’ll know. Emphasizing meaningful rituals is another tactic. To have some things that the community or family does together regularly, no matter what, increases the ability to get on with the action even if situations aren’t yet fully resolved.

Tackle maintenance and repair. Uncertain times, when some things are on hold, provide a good opportunity for fix-ups and clean-ups. Uncertainty makes it tempting to let things deteriorate (maybe we won’t keep this office going or live in this place any longer). But fixing things that can be improved represents productive action. For example, for job-seekers, embarking on a fitness regiment can add energy, lift spirits, and potentially make the person more attractive to a potential employer.

Let ideas flow. Opening the brainstorming faucet washes away some uncertainty. Since uncertainty leads to rampant gossip and speculation anyway, it can be a good time to harness imagination toward productive ends. Big companies have equally big planning departments, undoubtedly spewing out data files of alternative scenarios, but average workers and ordinary people can play, too. Brainstorming about possible futures stimulates imagination about what to do under nearly any circumstance. Will they or won’t they raise the debt ceiling? Will there be a law favoring green investments, or not — or should there be a push for one? Which newspapers are better weathering the digital revolution? How will retailing look different with or without lower unemployment? Seeds of innovation could sprout.

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and the 
author of Confidence and SuperCorp. Connect with her 
on Facebook or at

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