Sitting with uncertainty

Board effectiveness

Sitting with uncertainty

Written by Dr. Susan Mravlek.

As published in Governance Institute of Australia’s, Governance Directions Magazine.

Key insights

  • Sitting in uncertainty requires Boards to push beyond the norms on decision-making processes
  • It enables Board members to reflect and think in the midst of the chaos of disruption
  • To tolerate the complexity, paradox and ambiguity in processes alongside the anxiety related to not knowing what to do next or what will emerge
  • It overcomes conventional approaches, in other words ‘rut and rot’ and fosters innovation

Disruption, rising volatility and ensuing chaos is the new reality that has consumed our global landscape. Board Directors and executive leaders now more than ever need to demonstrate patience and the ability to tolerate the frustration, tension, paradox and anxiety associated with uncertainty.

Today, boards are not only having to contend with global events wreaking uncertainty and disorder, but also having to grasp the frenzy and tumult technology has brought with it. These complexities, as well as stakeholder expectations, have added layers of responsibility that come with no precedence and greater pressures on Boards to be ‘all knowing’. The conventional approach of rapid response, tighter control, and performativity is not only incapacitating critical thought, imagination and the ability to intuit the environment/business landscape, but it is also not fit for purpose.

This evolutionary phase of mankind requires a major shift in our thinking and in response to dealing with ambiguity and in the context of Boards, a push to evolve director’s capacity to be more adaptive in decision-making processes.

Being in a position of positive uncertainty

Responding to disruption requires new ways of strategic thinking and is as much about working with our ignorance as with our knowing, and to let go of outdated modes of conformity. The challenge for directors, like most leaders, is to shut out the perceived assumptions that they must be seen to know what they are doing (impression management) and be reactionary in disruption.

So how do boards shift their thinking from traditional state of all knowing, to be more effective operating in environments that are unknown? How do they respond to crisis and think strategically in the midst of disruptive events, whilst maintaining effective oversight of an organisation’s function?

Drawing on the concepts of Keats’, and French and Simpson’s ‘negative capability’ is the ability to deal more positively with uncertainty (contexts and outcomes) associated with disruption; to tolerate the complexity, paradox and ambiguity in processes alongside the anxiety related with a sense of not knowing what to do next or what will emerge. This concept is not novel yet continues to be underrated. Much research in organisational behaviour supports this concept. To be in a position where anxiety associated with not knowing is managed sufficiently can enable a creative space for new thoughts and ideas to form. It is a space where the opportunity for new learning and innovation can emerge.

Coping with paradox and ambiguity of disruption

The insights gained during uncertainty can further a Board’s understanding of disruptive events and the wider social influences that impact them and the organisation they govern. Pushing beyond the norms on decision-making processes and sitting in uncertainty requires the capacity to reflect about the experience as a whole. It requires discipline not to react when confronted with a crisis or an unknown, where the inherent tendency is to take flight and do.

Having faith in engaging with others/collective Board (or executive) to create new opportunities or prospects in which the response to crisis is ‘what is possible’, rather than an immediate defensive response of ‘this is impossible’. It’s creating a space where the Board can collectively access their knowledge, expertise and skills, and integrate this with patience, active listening, and pausing on ‘reacting’ or not ‘doing’. Being willing to embrace this way of working with other directors allows for new (strategic) thinking to evolve.

This does not mean that normal oversight or regulations are ignored or that integrity and ethics are compromised or exploited, rather, the Board integrates all of this with the capability of staying with the cognitive challenge of not knowing. It’s being curious, willing to learn and know more, through effective engagement with each other.

“Don’t just do something, sit there!”

A common adage that most aptly describes the reactive stances, is ‘don’t just sit there, do something’. Sitting in uncertainty is counterintuitive toward ingrained behaviour of action and of knowing all the answers. It is in times of crisis that being in the stillness of silence that the impossible can be made possible. Tolerating not knowing is uncomfortable, and it is also difficult to resist the pressure of reacting.

Sitting in uncertainty requires the capacity of the Board/individual directors to tolerate intense feelings which can be experienced both in the mind and the body. It requires a pensive and reflective state of mindfulness, a here and now focus as a way of understanding and interpreting events. The approach requires the Board/director to acknowledge they know some things, but do not know all; that there are new possibilities that can emerge when working in relationship with others.

In summary

Not knowing the outcome or predetermining what will happen, as well as how it will happen, or conforming to think how others think in the same or conventional manner is a fundamental aspect of sitting in uncertainty. In overcoming the impulse to react, it creates the mind space for ‘left of field’ and ‘out of the box’ ideas to emerge. These chaotic, unbridled, and ambiguous dynamics that surface in Boards during a disruptive event, can effectively be harnessed to strengthen relations, foster greater trust and build better boards. It allows for doubt to be acceptable and thrive, thereby cultivating a culture of inquiry and learning. It promotes a Board’s openness to new possibilities and potentialities.

About the author

Susan Mravlek Principal Board Benchmarking

Dr. Susan Mravlek is a Principal of Board Benchmarking and of Insync’s Board Advisory Practice. Susan has special expertise in deep qualitative research that gets to the heart of what destabilises board/organisational culture and what it takes to restore cohesion. This was the subject of her Masters and PhD. She uses psycho-analytical techniques to explore the board’s collective behaviours and how that impacts the board’s effectiveness, performance and decision making.

She provides qualitative insights on what leadership teams and boards can do to build cohesion, become more effective and increase performance. Susan is an expert facilitator. She often sees things that others don’t and has the expertise, empathy and intuition to have difficult conversations with boards and executive teams.

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