I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
Dorothy never heard about the yellow brick road, would she ever
have been whisked back to Kansas? Would the tin man have found
his heart? The lion his courage? The straw man his brain? The
yellow brick road is a powerful metaphor connecting to something
deep in the human psyche. It represents hope, direction, and purpose.
Yet it also symbolizes a singular promise; follow the yellow brick
road, and your dreams will come true.
sentiments from a fantasy world to the work-a-day world is as
simple as it is troublesome. What if there isn't a yellow brick
road, only unexplored territory? What if no one can guarantee
that your search will lead to fulfillment? What if you simply
don't know if you are headed in the right direction? Most people
rarely openly entertain these kinds of questions; privately they
experience doubt, confusion, and complexity. The recent graduate
publicly professes faith in the career track laid out for her,
while privately wondering about the unspoken opportunities. The
guru publicly attests to the "seven steps to fulfillment",
while privately being haunted by doubts. The manager publicly
declares 100% support for the latest corporate initiative, while
privately harboring unexplored reservations.
The gap between public
proclamations and private thought is often so great that many
people learn to ignore uncertainty altogether. As one employee
put it, "Around here, you've got to know all the answers.
And even if you don't, you learn to act like you do." In
short: certainty rules, doubt does not.
Our culture tells
leaders that they have "got to know." And it tells them
in hundreds of ways, both large and small, that uncertainty is
- Interviewers typically
expect applicants to adroitly answer queries about career goals
for the next five years. If they say, "I am uncertain,"
what are their chances of getting hired?
- The newspapers
are filled with predictions about hot stock tips or the ten
best mutual funds for the coming year. How many magazines report
on the front page, "Timely Stock Picks Will Not Be Given
This Year: We Simply Can't Predict What Will Happen"?
- Citizens often
ridicule politicians who don't provide specific plans or promises
to deal with every conceivable problem.
- Financial analysts
require executives to project next year's earnings down to the
last penny. Woe to the company that misses the prediction because
of some unknown market force.
- Students frequently
insist that their teachers tell them exactly what they will
need to know for the next test. Few teachers retort: "I'm
not going to tell you because you're going to face many tests
in life for which you won't have a clue what the questions will
be. You'll just have to hone your intuitive skills."
- Workers often view
executives with suspicion when they can't provide the details
on market trends, new products, and future investment.
book takes a decidedly different tact than the prevailing culture.
The core premise is that in many situations, it is, in fact, better
to embrace uncertainty rather than eliminate it. Typically when
people first encounter uncertainty, they try to drive it out with
certainty-creating tools (see Chapter 4). Eventually many people
learn to tolerate and perhaps cope with uncertainty. We want to
encourage leaders to aspire to something greater--embrace uncertainty.
(See Figure I.1) Why? There are two critical reasons:
First, it is important
to recognize that there are many things for which leaders don't
have answers, they can't make accurate predictions, or they
have fuzzy and incomplete notions.
Second, it is important to legitimize "not knowing."
Leaders shouldn't feel compelled to provide a definitive answer
when one doesn't exist. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces
at work in society and organizations exerting a jackhammer-like
pressure, pounding into everybody's heads that they have "got
We are not embracing
a kind of whimsical uncertainty that condones inactivity or a
"whatever happens" kind of aimlessness. To be sure,
there are a lot of things people need to be fairly certain of:
- That the sun will
- That the airplanes
they travel in are safe.
- That the computer
software will work when they use it.
- That employees
show up to work on time.
- That private conversations
are kept confidential.
However, demanding certainty where none exists is foolhardy,
debilitating, and often dangerous. There are many benefits to
squarely facing up to the uncertainties of life. In fact, the
chaos, complexity and speed of change in modern organizations
require that effective leaders become masters at embracing uncertainty.
as well as employees, can choose to either ignore or embrace uncertainty.
Examining the relationship between the way employees and organizations
manage uncertainty proves revealing. The Uncertainty Management
Matrix (see Figure I.2) suggests four basic possibilities about
the resulting organization climate:
- Status Quo Climate:
Employees and the organization both avoid uncertainty. Employees
want few surprises and they rarely get them.
- Unsettling Climate:
Employees desire certainty while they perceive the organization
as embracing too much uncertainty. Thus employees become unsettled
and perhaps overwhelmed by the chaotic work environment.
- Stifling Climate:
Employees embrace uncertainty but they perceive that the organization
avoids it. The result: employees feel stifled.
- Dynamic Climate:
Both employees and the organization embrace uncertainty. Consequently,
the climate is dynamic, energetic, and ever-changing.
By studying over 1000
employees working in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies
to small businesses, we developed a tool that allows us to ascertain
which climate best described employee experiences.
The implications are
significant. Our research reveals that employees who work for
organizations that embrace uncertainty tend to be:
- More satisfied
with their job.
- More committed
to their organizations.
- Less cynical about
- More likely to
identify with the organization. (See Appendix 3)
These trends occurred
even when employees themselves did not fully embrace uncertainty.
For instance, employees in the Unsettling Climate reported approximately
the same degree of job satisfaction and commitment as those in
the Dynamic Climate. Even though employees may believe they are
ill-equipped to manage uncertainty, they are glad the organization
does. In fact, a reasonable hypothesis might be that employees
in the Status Quo Climate would be reasonably satisfied and committed
to their organization. But our research indicates otherwise. Apparently,
almost all employees recognize the need for someone to
Employees look to
leaders to provide the necessary inspiration, direction and tools
for their colleagues and organizations to embrace uncertainty.
We wrote this book to assist leaders in that quest. In particular,
we propose the following ideas:
Embracing uncertainty enhances the quality of life for employees
and organizations. (Chapter 1)
Proposition 2: There are some powerful forces that make
it difficult or socially unacceptable to embrace uncertainty.
Proposition 3: There is a lot more uncertainty in the
world than ever gets acknowledged. (Chapter 3)
Proposition 4: People and organizations spend a lot of
time creating the appearance but not the reality of certainty.
This is problematic. (Chapter 4)
Proposition 5: The illusions of certainty are pervasive
and often debilitating. The problem is getting worse, not better.
Proposition 6: There are effective ways to embrace uncertainty
in your lives and organizations. (Chapters 6 to 9)
In the remaining chapters
we develop these ideas in a way that enables you to become a more
effective leader and chart a new course. Goodbye yellow brick