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Let's Talk Messy

May 16, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

Has your predictable world been altered into another universe of new and ambiguous expectations? Are you having a hard time living in the mess? You are not alone.

As much as many of us don’t like a boatload of expectations thrust upon us, these expectations create orderliness and predictability in our lives. To have an expectation is to envision something that is reasonably certain to come about. Expectations are built into our daily routines, roles and strategies (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). When they are present, we are often unaware of them. But when they are stripped away and we plunge into ambiguity, we suddenly become much more cognizant of the stability they bring to our daily lives.

Living with ambiguity and trying out new things can feel very unsettling, even threatening. It can trigger fear and feelings of vulnerability. This is a natural human response. In the absence of information, our brain’s reticular activating system (RAS) has been primed to look for threats or safety. When the information isn’t there, we quickly make assumptions, and most often these assumptions amplify the negative and minimize the positive (Cooper and Sawaf, 1997). (Wow – very heavy scientific stuff!) In Dare to Lead, author Brenѐ Brown talks about this phenomenon stating that “in the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are wired (p 258).” We all know people that do this with or without data – which makes for some very interesting messes!

Not only does our human brain fill in the blanks, but we also have a preference for certainty over uncertainty. Research has shown that most people would rather definitely get an electric shock now, than maybe get a shock later. (My preference - never get a shock ever!) We will take the predictable, as unpleasant as it may be, rather than deal with the uncertainty in the future (Beck, 2015). While we all have this tendency, there is variation in the degree to which uncertainty disturbs each of us. This is a “keep it real” moment. Ask yourself what your uncertainty meter registers – Just about right? – Can’t take It anymore? – I’m moving to a remote island? …

We can, however, learn to overcome these negative tendencies by becoming more mindful, digging deeper and overriding the urge to assume the worst. Facing this vulnerability takes courage, some new thinking, tools and practice (this is a good place to just breathe!). Here are some tips to get your head and heart into a healthier state:

  • Understand that ambiguity is positive when it is a transitory state that invites thought, questions, solutions and action. But when it becomes static, it bogs us down into apathy, frustration and complacency. For leaders, ambiguity is a call for action. It’s a call to step-up and step-in!

  • Pay attention to the changes in your world and stay open as you do this. There are multiple answers to any one question when we approach it with a sense of curiosity. Go ahead – channel that inner child in you for this is where those endless “why” questions are tolerable! Unpack the emotions that accompany the change and resist the urge to label, blame or judge.

  • Recognize your human tendency to disconfirm evidence: only taking in information that agrees with your view of the world, followed by filling in the gaps with your own assumptions. This can often lead to some interesting non-scientific hyperbole and eye-rolling from those around you. Explore those underlying beliefs that feed your assumptions, and question their validity.

  • Identify the dilemmas or paradoxes within the new world and get away from either-or thinking. Two apparently opposing views can be true at the same time. Embrace the dilemma! It’s not easy but it’s a starting point!

  • Learn to say “I don’t know.” How freeing is this statement? As experts, adults, leaders and parents, it’s okay to acknowledge that the world is often grey, messy, unsolved, unknown. Instead of focusing on having the right answers, focus on asking questions that help you and others develop a deeper understanding of the issues. Get others involved in the process of sorting through the mess. Quite frankly, it’s more fun that way!

Perfection isn’t the goal.

Living authentically, striving to be true to our inner purpose and getting results is.

Stupid Gone Viral – When Science and Reality Collide (p. 55)

This is our opportunity to see things differently and lead in healthier ways. It is our chance to transform into something better (even something fabulous – you may surprise yourself!). The blind spots created by past expectations can become clearer as the predictability of the past is disrupted. And when we see things differently, we are better able to become more innovative, adaptable, and experiment a bit.

Take advantage of these times of changing needs and expectations, and encourage new ways of living and leading for yourself and your team. Support the practice of authentic dialogue and the creation of psychologically safe spaces (be they in person or virtual). This will lead to exploring the existing uncertainty, dilemmas and confusion at both a personal and organizational level without repercussions or fear.

Leaders, more than ever, need to lead during this chaotic time. By setting clear direction, expectations and rules of the game, leaders can reduce the uncertainty and promote needed stability in the moment. Your team needs you! Give yourself and your team permission to wrestle through the mess as you continue to evolve and adapt expectations that are fitting for the time.

Titter Time: Wrestling?

Wrestling is a little like fighting with a gorilla.

You don’t quit when you are tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired.



Beck, J. (2015, March 18). How uncertainty fuels anxiety. Health. Accessed 5/1/20 at

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York: Random House.

Cooper, R. & Sawaf, A. (1997). Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organizations. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.

Scott, K., Sarikas, B. & Bessler, C. (2020). Stupid Gone Viral – When Science and Reality Collide. Great Britain: ReThink Press.

Weick, K & Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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