Leading with Safe Uncertainty®

Safely Uncertain – it’s all in the mind!

Antifragility – Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Nassim Taleb (2012)

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resist shocks and stay the same; according to Taleb, the antifragile get better. How would it be if leaders could adopt an antifragile mindset that thrives in an environment of complexity and ambiguity? An approach that helps individuals and teams both accept and leverage ongoing change and uncertainty?

The concept of safe uncertainty was originally developed by Barry Mason working in the field of family therapy. Barry Mason used a four-quadrant model to describe unsafe uncertainty, safe uncertainty, safe certainty and safe uncertainty. He illustrated how a shift in thinking to allow space for safe uncertainty can help the dynamics and interactions that occur in a therapeutic setting. 

Struck by the parallels between the descriptors that he used and the operating environments that we were encountering with clients, we were finding that the ongoing uncertainty in organisations triggers a perceived threat to safety. This in itself leads to a corresponding threat-based response that actually closes down options and opportunities as opposed to feeling safe and adopting an antifragile or growth mindset. In particular, if the senior leadership team are not aware, engaged and willing to examine the impact of their own behaviours they become part of this threat-based response.

We worked with clients to develop a systemic approach for use in an organisational context to uncouple this default (threat-based) response and allow that space for safe uncertainty to emerge. We realised that there are benefits to organisational sustainability and competitive advantage by developing this approach where teams move from merely surviving to thriving in uncertainty. The use of a simple diagnostic with descriptors for each of the four quadrants helped clients to both recognise and respond to their current organisational context.

So, how to diagnose the existing culture, build on the best aspects and set a route map for a leadership style and mindset that embraces safe uncertainty? There are a wealth of cultural diagnostic tools and frameworks; our approach focuses on leadership thinking – style, mindset and the associated leadership culture. 

For more information on our approach and forthcoming programmes contact Jan or Andrew at info@moonstoneassociates.co.uk

Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century. One of the things that has happened to us in the 20th century as a human race is to learn how certainty crumbles in your hand. We cannot any longer have a fixed view of anything – Salman Rushdie (1988)