Change and Uncertainty: Lessons from the Business World

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We are not a private business, of course, but we can learn things from the business world that are helpful to the School.  There is a feature called Corner Office in the Sunday business section of the New York Times.  It consists of a short interview with the head of a company—last week the interview was with James Jr. Schiro, C.E.O. of Zurich Financial Services.  The questions tend to revolve around leadership, communications, recruiting, and corporate culture.  I was struck by part of Schiro’s answer to a question about the most important leadership lessons he has learned: “People don’t like change, but they can manage change.  They can’t handle uncertainty.  I think it is the job of leaders to eliminate uncertainty.”  I’ve never thought much about this distinction between change and uncertainty, and it seems obvious that some amount of uncertainty is inevitable in organizational change.  It is not possible to eliminate uncertainty, especially in these economic times, but it may be important to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.  Or is it more important to help people understand and respond to uncertainty and ambiguity, especially in a decentralized organization like this one?  Any thoughts about this distinction between change and uncertainty?

3 thoughts on “Change and Uncertainty: Lessons from the Business World

  1. A few months ago, I attended a half-day “Change and Transition Strategies” course led by UNC HR. This was a good training class, and I learned a lot. I have materials from the class if you want to see them. I personally think it is more important to help people understand and respond to uncertainly and ambiguity.

  2. I think what he (and Powell) said about people understanding the strategy is as important as reducing uncertainty. That means there needs to be a strategy, that the strategy includes a destination or goal, and that people know why that strategy is being pursued. Having such an understanding can create room for the necessary uncertainty that comes with change. That said, communicating a strategy shouldn’t become an excuse for disorganized change, and reducing the amount of uncertainty within change should be a constant effort.

  3. Putting on my long-discarded hat as a psychologist, I can say that the anxiety produced by uncertainty explains a good deal of human behavior which at first blush appears irrational. Putting on my other hat as a mother, I confess that avoiding the anxiety produced by uncertainty was the major motive for most of the lies I told my kids (except for the Santa Claus lies). Anyone with small children has experienced what happens when you say “I’m not really certain what the doctor is going to do today,” or “Perhaps we’ll stop for ice cream.” I learned to say less and sound certain about what I did say as soon as my kids reached the talking-stage. My husband, a clinical psychologist who works for the NC Parole Commission, often sees inmates on the brink of release get an infraction just before the release decision is to be made. Sometimes it’s bad luck, and sometimes an inmate doesn’t want to get out for some reason, but very often he unconsciously behaves in a manner that reduces uncertainty (and thus anxiety). I see this as well in my personal history as a young woman–sometimes I felt that any quick decision was vastly preferable to “having it hang over me” (sometimes referred to by adults as “taking time to think it over”!) And of course we’ve all learned more than we’d like to know about the psychology of torture within recent months–and how pain that is certain is less “effective” than pain that unpredictably alternates with kindness.
    I know a lot more about individual than organizational psychology, but I think the implications of this concept suggest that any reduction in uncertainty is worthwhile, even if–as in the current situation– a great deal of it is inescapable. When change is inevitable, it’s helpful to know exactly what the parameters are (“We will continue to have service to public officials as our highest priority”), and to know to the greatest extent possible how long the uncertainty must be tolerated (“We expect to learn the full extent of the cuts by July 15,” for example). Of course, that’s an easier line to draw than to walk, but focusing on what we DO know is more reassuring than focusing on what we don’t. Finally, confidence that everyone has the same information and that leaders are speaking with one voice obviously eliminates a significant source of uncertainty. Oddly, even being definite about uncertainty–recognizing it, commenting on it, expressing concern about it–may reduce its power.
    Looking around for my lawyer hat,

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