Uncertainty, Fear, and Learning

Fear is a signal you might be about to learn something


In an earlier post, I wrote about the connection between uncertainty and learning. There I tried to make the point that uncertainty is a condition that is pre-requisite to learning, and that the present moment is the most uncertain place we can inhabit because we never know what is going to happen next.

There is another aspect to uncertainty, one that has to do with our reaction when we find ourselves confronted by it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, fear is a typical companion in a situation where uncertainty is present. Sometimes this fear is a natural reaction to what is going on, bubbling up organically. Like when I’m about to meet with a potential client and I’m worried about saying the wrong thing and losing the business. Or when I’m trying a new thing and it looks like it’s all about to go horribly wrong.

Other times, fear is intentionally used by managers to create the illusion of control. Intimidation becomes a tool to force compliance in response to the feeling that events are about to spin off unpredictably. In these circumstances, efficiency, stability and predictability are sought like the Holy Grail. “Let’s get back to what we know how to do,” is the guiding principal. Not exactly the path to learning and innovation.

Rather than running from uncertainty or trying to wrestle it into submission, it is far better to engage it. When the outcome is unclear or what to do next isn’t in the guidebook, possibilities emerge when you can be curious about what is going on and what you are noticing. Then, seek actions (including doing nothing) which might make the most of this unprecedented situation. If the chosen action leads in a good direction, continue doing it. If it doesn’t, adjust and try something else. 

Paying attention and reflecting all along the way enables growth and learning. It may not necessarily be “efficient”, but it will be effective.