The Pain of Uncertainty

Mar 17, 2015 No Comments by

Dealing With the Uncertainty of Change

“Don’t wait for people to fill in the blanks.

Help those impacted by your change truly understand what they may lose, what they may gain and what they’ll have to figure out for themselves in order to thrive in their post-change future.”

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There’s an old saying in the circles of those who work with change that comes from the field of human psychology and it goes something like this:

“People often fear the pain of uncertainty more than the certainty of pain.”

Medical Pic of Pain in the NeckThis concept offers Change Agents and Sponsors some insight into why detailed, factual communication about a change – which can be accurately interpreted at the individual stakeholder level – can be one of their most important contributions to guiding organizational transformation.

I’ve written several times over the past few years about how Change Agents would do well to help their impacted stakeholders answer specific questions about their change rather than let them “fill in the blanks”. Here are few of those articles:

030215 theBigRocks Certainty of Pain Banner

Unknowns as a Root of Uncertainty: The questions people struggle with during big transitions may seem obvious on the surface, but I can tell you from experience that many Sponsors and Change Agents simply do not invest the time, resources and follow-through to ensure that people know:tbr question marks bar vertical

1.  What exactly is changing?

2.  Why are we doing this?

3.  Why now?

4.  What other options did you guys consider?

5.  When is this all going to happen?

6.  How can I get ready for this change so it doesn’t just land on me like a ton of bricks?

7.  Do I have any wiggle room on making this change?

8.  Where should I go if I have questions or need help?

…and the list goes on…

Individual Reactions and ValuesHow Uncertainty Causes Pain: I don’t believe that organizations necessarily “think” about how change will impact them. Instead, the individuals who make up an organization each consider how a given change may impact them personally. (I call that “personal impact”) Then they process that information through the filters of what matters most to them. (aka: their Values)

So the exact meaning of a given change can vary quite a bit by person.

The organization’s attitude toward the change at a given point in time is a collective reflection that can best be understood as a tapestry of data points and trends. 

When left without solid, factual information to address each person’s value-driven needs, people often struggle with how they will operate in the future. This struggle can be painful.

In the absence of valid answers to the questions above, they may fill in the blanks with so many guesses, water-cooler rumors, past negative experiences and worst-case scenarios that they end up suffering from a kind of pain which offers absolutely no reward.

It Really Is All About Me: If you don’t believe me that these broad awareness gaps can stoke the individual flames of uncertainty, consider the following list of personal, negative inferences that could be generated directly from some of those more general concerns. People might ask themselves:tbr question marks 2 vertical bar

  1. Do they still value my work here if my current role is part of this change?
  2. Does this change imply that I stink at my job so I should be downsized? Did I recently do something to cause this need for change?
  3. How much time do I have to try and figure this out? Do I need to get my resume together?
  4. Will I have access to the information, training and support needed to prepare? I haven’t completed any meaningful training in years… Will I be able to balance my current work with all the effort needed to get ready for this transition?
  5. What if I’m just not very good at the new way of doing things? Will I have any leeway if it takes me longer than others to “get it”?
  6. Is anyone going to help me if I get stuck or am I on my own here? Will I look like I’m resisting change if I question things?

… and so on.

So it’s safe to say that some folks may not feel like diving into this sea of change without clear expectations and at least enough information to make good decisions based on their needs.

scales of justiceWhat’s So Good About the Certainty of Pain? It doesn’t sound like much fun to do something we know will be painful. But that choice may still be preferred over the pain of uncertainty. In the case of stakeholders taking individual action to prepare themselves for change, the old saying I mentioned up front implies that people start by evaluating whether making a given change is in their interest.

This bargaining process may include weighing the value of change adoption against such “painful” personal contributions as:

– Feeling that my current/past work will no longer be valued.

– Juggling additional effort during the transition.

– Initially feeling our skills or knowledge are inadequate.

– Asking for help (especially hard if we’ve previously been rewarded for being an expert in your field).

– Watching others “get it” faster than ourselves.

– Feeling like we are being judged on how quickly or effectively we adapt.

– Concern that asking questions may be interpreted as not being a team player.

Big Blue Question MarkI’ve found that once people have adequate information and trust in the assurances of support through the transition process, they typically conclude that this kind of pain can be dealt with.

Given this clarity, impacted stakeholders typically deduce that it’s better to “bite the bullet” and start their transition once they know what’s expected of them.


The Bottom Line: Humans don’t generally like uncertainty, and when a lack of clarity about the future relates to something as personal as one’s livelihood, the struggle can be intense. Thus, the pain of uncertainty can be worse that the certainty of pain.

But just as those mysterious bumps in the night that came from your closet scared you as a kid, the unknowns of change represent a sort of boogie man who doesn’t deserve to be feared. Instead, this paper tiger can be slain with real answers, consideration of individual needs and diligent effort by the right people.


Questions for Chatter:

Have you ever misread your organization’s intentions for a given change because you didn’t have all the right information?

What is worse for you: the pain of uncertainty or the certainty of pain?

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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