Grow­ing Re­silience in Un­cer­tain Times

Business a.m. - - FRONT PAGE - Nathan Furr is an As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Strat­egy at INSEAD. He is a Pro­gramme Di­rec­tor of Lead­ing Digital Trans­for­ma­tion and In­no­va­tion, an Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme at INSEAD. Nathan Furr

Man­ag­ing the cur­rent cri­sis is an in­side job.

“My life has been full of ter­ri­ble mis­for­tunes, most of which never hap­pened.” – Michel de Mon­taigne

When con­fronted with a sit­u­a­tion weighed with anx­i­ety and am­bi­gu­ity, like a pan­demic, a lock­down and fright­en­ing...

Man­ag­ing the cur­rent cri­sis is an in­side job.

“My life has been full of ter­ri­ble mis­for­tunes, most of which never hap­pened.” – Michel de Mon­taigne

When con­fronted with a sit­u­a­tion weighed with anx­i­ety and am­bi­gu­ity, like a pan­demic, a lock­down and fright­en­ing news from the econ­omy, it’s im­pos­si­ble for most of us to imag­ine any up­side. We be­come paral­ysed; over­whelmed by events, we de­scend into a state of mind I call un­pro­duc­tive uncer­tainty. But there are some peo­ple who man­age to see their way through that paral­y­sis and find a pos­i­tive path for­ward.

Specif­i­cally, some man­age to make uncer­tainty work for them: in­no­va­tors, en­trepreneur­s, CEOs, No­bel Prize win­ners as well as gam­blers, paramedics and surfers. Over the past five years, I’ve iden­ti­fied the ap­proaches and tools they use to nav­i­gate tur­bu­lent times and un­cover their own po­ten­tial.

Al­though part of our ca­pac­ity to deal with the un­known is in­nate, a larger por­tion is learned. Those who de­velop this uncer­tainty ca­pa­bil­ity are more cre­ative, more suc­cess­ful and bet­ter able to turn uncer­tainty into pos­si­bil­ity. My re­search has shown a va­ri­ety of tools for cul­ti­vat­ing this ca­pac­ity, of which I share just a few here.

Re­fram­ing the im­pos­si­ble

Per­ceiv­ing our op­tions in a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive light, or fram­ing, changes how we feel about them. It also has an im­por­tant im­pact on our re­sponses, ac­cord­ing to be­havioural sci­ence re­search. Daniel Kah­ne­man and Amos Tver­sky, for ex­am­ple, showed how we are loss-averse and gain seeking. Imag­ine two po­ten­tially life-sav­ing pro­grammes. One would def­i­nitely save 200 lives out of 600 and the other has a 33 per­cent chance of sav­ing 600 lives. When pre­sented with th­ese vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal op­tions, the ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pants in their study chose cer­tainty.

Some­times de­scribed as bias, frames can be used to our ad­van­tage:

Learn­ing: The No­bel Prize win­ning chemist Ben Feringa ex­pe­ri­enced years of learn­ing through fail­ure in his re­search. He said, “If you deal with uncer­tainty you will fail. Al­low your­self to feel the frus­tra­tion for a few hours or a few days. But then ask your­self: What can I learn from it? What is the next step that I can be work­ing on? Get re­silient at han­dling the frus­tra­tion that comes with uncer­tainty.”

Game: Rather than beat our­selves up when we lose an ac­count or miss an opportunit­y, we see that while one day we may lose, we could win an­other day. Frus­tra­tion is all part of the game.

Grat­i­tude: You have a lot at this mo­ment in time, so take time to recog­nise it all. Base­ball leg­end Lou Gehrig is a great ex­am­ple. At the height of his suc­cess, he was di­ag­nosed with the de­bil­i­tat­ing disease of ALS but in his farewell to base­ball, he said: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been read­ing about the bad break I got. Yet today I con­sider my­self the luck­i­est man on the face of this earth…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an aw­ful lot to live for.”

Ran­dom­ness: What hap­pens to you isn’t solely down to your ac­tions, but you can con­trol your own re­sponse. A sur­vivor of a mas­sive avalanche, en­tre­pre­neur Jon Win­sor said, “We have this per­cep­tion in busi­ness: We think we con­trol the world. I think what is prob­a­bly more cor­rect is it’s more about in­ter­pret­ing the world in­stead of try­ing to say we con­trol it.” Fail­ure and suc­cess are more ran­dom than we may re­alise, so don’t let frus­tra­tion pre­vent you from try­ing one more time.

Hero: This is the most pow­er­ful frame I’ve learned about. A for­mer para­medic, Aus­tralian film­maker Ben­jamin Gil­mour never knew when he went through a door if he would save a life or if his own life would be threat­ened. To nav­i­gate this uncer­tainty (and later ones), he viewed his ex­pe­ri­ence on the call­outs as the hero’s jour­ney. “Ev­ery story we love, from Luke Sky­walker to Harry Pot­ter, is about the hero who goes through ob­sta­cles. Ev­ery­one loves the hero. But the ob­sta­cles are what makes the hero.” Strength can come from over­com­ing hur­dles and from show­ing up even when it’s un­com­fort­able.

Habits to de­velop your uncer­tainty ca­pa­bil­ity

Th­ese sug­ges­tions are vari­a­tions on fram­ing which can help you put things in con­text.

Open your eyes to all op­tions

When in the midst of un­pro­duc­tive uncer­tainty, we may be­come so fo­cused on the sit­u­a­tion at hand that we over­look any broader pos­si­bil­i­ties. This cre­ates dis­quiet and can thrust us into mak­ing rash de­ci­sions or for­go­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause we can’t look up from our cur­rent prob­lem. Psy­chol­o­gists call this ten­dency to miss the big­ger pic­ture “rel­a­tive de­pri­va­tion”. Who do you com­pare your­self to?

When we can re­mem­ber that there is a much wider con­text than we ini­tially be­lieve, we are much more likely to find an op­ti­mal out­come. A broader fo­cus al­lows us to weather the dis­com­fort of un­pro­duc­tive uncer­tainty with greater op­ti­mism and calm. Even when uncer­tainty re­lates to rel­a­tively small is­sues, like miss­ing a flight and won­der­ing what to do with the unan­tic­i­pated extra time, or to larger ones, like los­ing a job and hav­ing to con­sider dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble paths.

For ex­am­ple, Steve Blank, se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and fa­ther of the Lean Startup Move­ment, visited Sil­i­con Val­ley on a work as­sign­ment early in his ca­reer. Awestruck at the 48 pages of job list­ings in the San Jose Mer­cury

News, he told his col­league: “I’m go­ing to quit, I’m stay­ing here.” Blank’s view was, what could be the worst out­come of quit­ting his job? Why not try? Friends thought he was in­sane to give up a good job, but Blank saw the larger con­text (the emerg­ing com­put­ing boom in Sil­i­con Val­ley). He was will­ing to walk into one of the scari­est un­pro­duc­tive un­cer­tain­ties – shed­ding his pre­vi­ous life and job – and ush­ered in a to­tally dif­fer­ent life than if he had stayed with what was com­fort­able and cer­tain.

Think in prob­a­bil­i­ties, not bi­nary out­comes

When we find our­selves in the mid­dle of a pe­riod of un­pro­duc­tive uncer­tainty, we might get stuck imag­in­ing ex­treme ei­ther/or out­comes. In­no­va­tors who are adept at man­ag­ing uncer­tainty think in terms of prob­a­bil­i­ties in­stead, en­larg­ing their po­ten­tial op­tions.

I saw the power of this par­tic­u­lar habit re­cently while teach­ing an Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­u­ca­tion course at INSEAD just as the pan­demic was ac­cel­er­at­ing in Europe. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron was sched­uled to ad­dress the na­tion about the cri­sis and the par­tic­i­pants from all over the globe be­gan to worry that the bor­ders would be closed, leav­ing them stranded. Think­ing in bi­nary terms – stranded or not stranded – we all felt a pal­pa­ble sense of anx­i­ety. But when we turned it around, con­sid­er­ing the full range of pos­si­ble out­comes and as­signed prob­a­bil­i­ties to them, we be­gan to see the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently. We imag­ined there was a good chance the bor­ders wouldn’t close for a few days, a mod­est chance they would close sooner and an ex­tremely slim chance they would close im­me­di­ately. Con­sid­er­ing mul­ti­ple op­tions brought us im­mense re­lief and the par­tic­i­pants were able to travel.

Re­mem­ber that pos­si­bil­i­ties al­ways ex­ist

This may be dif­fi­cult to see now, in this time of grief and fear for many, but is it true that pos­si­bil­i­ties al­ways ex­ist? Or is the abil­ity to push through un­pro­duc­tive uncer­tainty only for the priv­i­leged?

Look­ing back at the words of renowned psy­chol­o­gist and con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor Vic­tor Frankl, his con­clu­sion is a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to the po­ten­tial for growth even in un­think­able cir­cum­stances. He wrote: “Ev­ery­thing can be taken from a [per­son] but one thing: the last of hu­man free­doms – to choose one’s at­ti­tude in a given set of cir­cum­stances, to choose one’s own way.” We are all free to choose, and find­ing that free­dom is key to find­ing a way for­ward in un­cer­tain times.

With un­prece­dented lev­els of uncer­tainty about our health, our work and the world, it’s pos­si­ble to nur­ture an uncer­tainty ca­pa­bil­ity and find re­silience.

This ar­ti­cle was based on Don’t Let Uncer­tainty Par­a­lyze You and You’re Not Pow­er­less in the Face of Uncer­tainty by Nathan Furr in Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view.

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