Very often we demand of our leaders that they give us certainty, that they take decisive action, that they lead us in the right direction. We praise politicians who are consistent, and lambast them if they dither or dilly-dally. The stock market hates uncertainty, and downgrades the value of any business whose CEO isn’t giving a clear lead.
On the other hand, as John Maynard Keynes didn’t ever say, ‘When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?’ What’s so admirable about sticking to the same position even when the world has turned?
As a business owner or leader or manager, how do you respond when your people tell you they don’t know what to do? And when you don’t know what to do, does it make you uncomfortable and edgy? In this article I want to persuade you to welcome uncertainty and use its potential in your business (and elsewhere).
There are five aspects to this.
1. ARE YOU UP FOR IT? NO COULD BE THE BEST ANSWER…
Firstly, are you up for it? Is your head in the game? Do you currently feel enthused and positive about what you’re doing? I’m not talking about the day-to-day exasperations of dealing with suppliers or clients or employees or landlords or the government – we all have times of frustration. Instead, I mean that deep down, long term feeling that you’re happy doing what you’re doing.
If you don’t know, or are no longer sure, then… good! That’s not a bad thing. It may mean you are beginning to re-evaluate. Much, much worse is to persist in banging your head against a brick wall.
Persistence is overrated. If you’re fishing in an empty pond, sticking it out long past dusk is no virtue at all.
A colleague of mine in The Network of Consulting Professionals was at a café after his early morning bike ride, and observed how grumpy the proprietor was, how he appeared to resent having to serve coffee and wipe the tables. As he left, my colleague quietly left his card with the owner and simply said, ‘Mate, are you sure this is what you want to be doing?’ (And if you wonder where a MAMAL – Middle-Aged-man-In-Lycra – carries his business cards, I’d advise you to stop thinking about it right away.)
Why it matters:
Misery is contagious – as is positivity. We all know that person who’s always down in the mouth, just as (I hope) we all know people whose very presence communicates energy and enthusiasm. Clients can sense that, particularly in hospitality, and staff certainly can sense it. Don’t expect smiles and laughter all around if you’re casting a shadow.
And if you are miserable right now, take it seriously. It’s telling you something. I met someone before Christmas who was very, very miserable, but who wasn’t taking action to resolve the situation. He seemed paralysed by what was happening. The building where his business was now stands empty. Maybe that was always going to happen… and maybe not. It was certainly going to happen if he did nothing.
2. DO YOU HAVE AN INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL?
Sorry for the jargon, but it does mean what it says on the tin. Do you feel like you’re in charge? Do you take action to change things that need changing? Or do you, for example, blame ‘the government’ or ‘the economy’ or ‘disloyal customers’ or ‘hopeless suppliers’?
It’s worth just noticing how people around you respond to things that need to change. If they tend to use the word ‘should,’ for example – as in ‘Customers should show some loyalty!’ or ‘The government should do more to support manufacturers!’ – then it’s worth wondering if what lies behind that is an external locus of control.
I’m not saying, by the way, that customers shouldn’t show loyalty or that the government shouldn’t support manufacturing. All I’m saying is that ‘If wishes were fishes we’d all swim in riches.’
Blaming others is a way out. It allows us to remain convinced that we’re right and the rest of the world is wrong.
Without getting all party political, I’ve noticed that in recent times the losers in an election tend to blame the electorate for their stupidity, racism, ignorance or whatever. This is an excellent tactic, if what you’re aiming to do is to relieve the sense of outrage you feel that anyone could disagree with you. What it doesn’t do is fix the problem. Presumably that same stupid, racist (or whatever term of abuse is preferred) electorate will go the same way next time, all things being equal. The truth is, a shopkeeper with an empty shop can blame the disloyalty of customers all she likes, but it won’t do anything to fix the problem.
Why it matters:
They say that one of the worst forms of torture is to give someone responsibility but not control. If you’re certain it’s all the fault of your customers for not coming to your business, you may even be right – but if you do nothing about it, nothing will change. I’m not saying the customer is always right… but the customer is always the customer. And they’ll still be shopping somewhere else if you don’t do anything about it. Concentrate on what you can fix, and you’ll have your hands full. There are no guarantees that’ll be enough, but you can easily go mad worrying about what you can’t control.
3. DO YOU KNOW YOUR REALITY FILTER IS ON?
A man walks through the forest. He’s a Ranger, and he notices the health of the individual trees and of the forest overall. He sees many jobs to be done, and knows which are more urgent than others, and which more important in the long term. Another man walks through the forest. He carries an axe, and he’s looking for firewood. A third man walks through the forest, this one a policeman, looking for evidence of a crime. A volunteer firefighter… a logger… a naturalist… someone out enjoying a Sunday stroll… You could probably think of many more men to walk through the forest. Each would see it – experience it – differently. (And if you didn’t even notice that in each case it was a man walking through the forest, rather than a woman, that’s because… your reality filter is on!)
We can’t dismantle our reality filter completely, though in time it can change. Two hundred years ago, you or I might have walked through the middle of London and not even noticed the slaves or the children working. A hundred years from now, it’s entirely possible that people will be amazed at we don’t notice today (‘You ate what for dinner?!’ ‘You steered a vehicle yourself?!’) .
But even if we can’t get fully beyond our reality filter, we can certainly remind ourselves that we have one, and that it both enables and limits us. It enables us to make sense of the world – chair-looking things are probably safer to sit on than things that look like knives; and also limits our awareness – your business doesn’t look to anyone else in the whole world the way it does to you.
The world looks radically less settled and convincing once we can accept that how we see it isn’t reality, just our reality.
I sold my business to someone who didn’t even look at the financials to value it, because what they wanted and what I thought I had were two entirely different things. That’s more common than you might think. If you have a successful independent prestige car dealership that’s the only one selling that brand that isn’t owned by the manufacturer, that will affect its value very considerably, one way or another. If the overseas headquarters develop a strategy to own all their new car dealerships, suddenly things can change very quickly.
Why it matters:
It ain’t what we know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so (as Mark Twain didn’t say).
4. DO YOU HAVE A GROWTH MINDSET?
The term comes from Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which suggests that there are two mindsets, ‘fixed’ and ‘growth.’ A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence and creative abilities are givens that can’t be significantly shifted, and that success is how you do with them. Naturally, then, you strive for success and aim to avoid failure to maintain your sense of being smart or skilled.
A growth mindset, however, thrives on challenge and sees failure as the necessary stepping stone to success and growth by stretching our existing abilities. Not surprisingly, these two mindsets, which develop very early on in life, dictate to a very large extent how we behave and how we relate to success and failure and, it is argued, our capacity for happiness.
As with any deeply satisfying and convincing either/or, it’s more complicated than that. We can have different mindsets in different areas of our lives, for example. And not surprisingly it’s proved difficult to replicate Dweck’s findings that such mindsets even exist, except on a continuum, and that if they do they are very convincingly correlated with happiness or success. So yes, pinch of salt recommended. Let’s not get too certain about the power of uncertainty.
But so what? Actually, I suspect if you find this idea attractive – that these mindsets exist, and that one (growth) leads to greater enjoyment of success and more happiness – then you’re probably displaying some of the characteristics of a growth mindset already!
Whether you buy the whole idea or just find it stimulating, it’s absolutely worth your while to reflect on how you respond to the notion.
I had a client plagued by perfectionism. However hard she tried, she constantly felt she was failing – and it was a feeling she loathed. Guess what? The solution to this is never to work harder and harder and hope to get to 100%. That may be a valid measure in some exams, but in life generally and in business specifically, there ain’t no 100%. And if you keep on kicking goals all the time, your goalposts need moving. ‘Ah, but a man’s reach’ (and a woman’s too, if you don’t mind) ‘should exceed his’ – or her – ‘grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ (Robert Browning did actually say that.)
Why it matters:
Aiming for perfection (a form of certainty) will drive you mad, first, and then out of business. A new product, for example, is unlikely to be perfect first time round, and it’s through finding out what customers like – and, crucially, don’t like – that it improves. (Reminds me of the law firm newsletter I once took over, which was by far the best on the market, and a good two weeks later than everyone else’s, thereby negating the whole point of doing one in the first place.) If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly (as GK Chesterton didn’t say).
5. ARE YOU STILL LEARNING?
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say. (You can.) But age in this sense is more a state of mind than numbers on the clock. I know a 95 year old neuroscientist whose curiosity and intellectual passion puts mine to shame. I also know someone thirty five years younger who sits at home worrying about what he said forty years ago. Who’s older?
Business is changing, faster than ever. More competition, more opportunities, more speed, more disruption, more complexity, more customers… If you’re not changing, how likely is it that your business is doing so?
While Henry Ford didn’t say that if he’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses, he could have felt pretty pleased with himself if he had. Because it reveals an important truth: change, by its nature, is different. It comes from odd directions (at what point do you think camera manufacturers suddenly realised that, of all things, telephones were going to kill their business?) and no-one can claim to be able to spot trends all the time (Steve Jobs hated apps: now the iPhone has more than two million and they generate revenues well in excess of $30bn per year). If we don’t burn, we don’t learn.
Why it matters: They say a shark that stops moving dies. They’re wrong about that, but even so it’s a good analogy for business. Do you know what other businesses are doing? Have you visited their shopfloor, or even their website? I’m not just talking about competitors (though you should certainly be all across them), nor even just businesses in your market, but about all kinds of businesses in all kinds of circumstances. Learn or burn.
As business owners or managers or leaders, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing that others expect us to display certainty – clear leadership; consistency; a vision. And sometimes that is necessary. If you’re rapidly approaching a T-junction, it’s more important that you make a decision, any decision, rather than just plough straight on. At other times, though, admitting that we are human, and therefore of limited vision with our own frailties and failings, that we don’t know it all, can be the best way to display leadership.
The power of uncertainty
Traditionally, being confident and right has been a sign of strength. In some circumstances, it still may be. But when a business owner or manager is so concerned about being right that they refuse to listen to any other view, that’s when things can go sideways. Showing that you don’t always know everything can actually be very inspirational for your people.
If you have a business mentor or someone you can confide in, you’re a lucky person indeed. If you are stuck and need someone to discuss issues in your business with, give Steve Carey a call on 0423 793887.