While change is nothing new, we are living in a prolonged period of uncertainty, with economic turmoil, political upheaval, and technological disruption pretty much constant. Career paths are no longer linear, jobs are not for life and requisite skillsets continually change.

And we’re hardwired to dislike uncertainty – it causes more stress than knowing that a bad outcome will definitely occur. A recent study by University College London measured the stress levels of participants playing a game where they had to guess whether or not individual rocks had snakes hiding under them. Uncovering a snake led them to receive a mild electrical shock. 

The experiment was tweaked to make it more unpredictable and stress levels measured accordingly. It was found that when subjects had a 50% chance of receiving a shock it was the most stressful situation, while if there was a 0% or 100% chance, it was the least stressful. 

“When applying for a job, you’ll probably feel more relaxed if you think it’s a long shot or if you’re confident that it’s in the bag,” says co-author of the study Dr Robb Rutledge. “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious.”

But the study also suggests that stress has a useful role. People whose stress responses spiked the most at periods of greatest uncertainty were better at judging which rocks hid the snakes. 

Fight or flight?


While uncertainty clearly causes stress, and some degree of stress is useful, for some people it is unbearable. There is a psychological tool, the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale, which measures how well a person deals with the unknown. 

The questions it poses are interesting if you want to get some insight into your own attitude. For example, if you agree with the statements “uncertainty keeps me from living a full life” or “the smallest doubt can stop me from acting” then uncertainty may be holding you back. And it can be paralysing living in perpetual fear of what might be. 

How to deal with the unknown


So, what can be done? There are lessons to be taken from the businesses and entrepreneurs that make a virtue out of disruption, as well as the proponents of techniques such as mindfulness…  

Accept that there will always be things outside of your control

Focus instead on areas that you have the power to change. When it comes to getting a new job, you can’t control a business’s budget plans for new hires, for instance, so concentrate your energies on areas you can influence. It is in your power to do all you possibly can to prepare for the interview and give your best to demonstrate your worth.

Be opportunistic 

The upside of uncertainty is that it creates opportunity. Strong businesses evolve, even reinvent, to take advantage of disruption. You can do the same in your career looking at how to develop your skills and experience, adapting to take advantage of change.

Positive mindsets

Accept that no one knows what is around the corner. Some degree of future planning is necessary for sure, but if things go off course, look for the upsides in the situation. And just because something is uncertain doesn’t mean it will be negative. Avoid catastrophising the future – it could well be bright. 

No such thing as failure

Successful people take risks – and if they don’t work out, they look at what they could learn from the experience, or how it might take them in a new direction. They don’t beat themselves up with negative self-talk that they have somehow ‘failed’. Think about what you would do if you weren’t scared of failing, then plan accordingly on how to achieve it.

Risk management

While taking risks can be energising and productive, it may not always be practical. Financial constraints and family commitments have to be considered. Scenario planning can help you assess the risk – what are the likely outcomes from a given action, what is the worst case scenario and what is the best? What measures can be put in place to mitigate some of the risk?

Taking control

Mastering how to manage uncertainty can be hugely beneficial. It is certainly worthwhile in terms of personal development but it also puts you in a strong position in the current job market. Businesses need people who can help them capitalise on disruption and who are unfazed by change.  

Interestingly, The Lawyer recently reported on a study by career coach Edward Walker, which claims that lawyers are less well-suited to coping with uncertainty than other professionals. It may well have interesting ramifications for business services professionals in the legal industry. How could you turn this to your advantage, to support the lawyers you end up working with? One to ponder…




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