How To Manage Uncertainties At Work

Life is full of uncertainties. Some people work very hard to deal with them while some prefer to ignore them.

In the workplace, ignoring uncertainties means you make a conscious decision to leave your work to chance. That’s not very career enhancing!

Uncertainties in the workplace generally fall into 4 categories:

  1. Technical
  2. People
  3. Career
  4. Environmental

Managing uncertainties in these 4 categories require different approaches but the principles are the same:

  • Don’t try to turn uncertainty into 100% certainty
  • Do what’s within your control to influence the outcome
  • Prioritize based on what affects you most

Technical Uncertainties

This type of uncertainty is best addressed by adopting the Risk Management Approach:

  • Identify risk
  • Assess likelihood
  • Design control
  • Manage exposure

As an example, you work as an intern in a legal firm and you’re asked to write a program to record and correlate the education, years of experience, and performance of the lawyers.

You are a Criminology student and have taken only an introductory programming course. You are uncertain if you are up to the job.

The risk is “knowledge”. You will need to learn how to do serious coding.

Likelihood. You did have some programming training, even though it may be rudimental. Did you do well in the course? Did you find it easy to code? You may be major in Criminology but you also do well in accounting. That is, if you have evidence that you have a logical and structured mindset, and have some preliminary knowledge of coding, the likelihood that you can learn and complete the assignment would at least be medium (in the scale of high, medium, low).

Control. Is there someone in the law firm that you can go to if you encounter problems with your coding? Do you have friends who can give you a hand if needed? If the answer is yes, your control is “high”.

Exposure. You are an intern and the program is internal-facing. If you fail, it’s not the end of the world. So, exposure is fairly “low”.

When you consider your ratings on likelihood/control/exposure, the risk of this assignment is indeed quite acceptable. There is no reason for you to turn it down.

On the other hand, if the program is for enabling clients to enquire online the progress of their cases — even you are a final year Computer Science student, the exposure may be too high. This is because if you screw up, such as security flaws and inaccurate information, there can be dire consequences. You don’t want to take up that type of assignment unless there are qualified and experienced software engineers in the company to guide you with the work.

Risk-taking people will always jump on new opportunities while risk-averse people will hesitate and play safe. The Risk Management Approach will help you evaluate your risk objectively in making informed decisions.

People Uncertainties

“Unpredictable” means you don’t know how the other(s) will react. Examples include:

  • You ask a colleague from another team to help but that’s unplanned work for her
  • You and your peers compete for the budget for your project
  • You and your peers debate the right solution for the problem
  • You are about to present a solution to your peers who are competing with you for the next promotion
  • You know you’re going to miss a deadline and you need to tell your boss
  • You’re in the middle of a big project but there’s a great opportunity in another department, you want to ask your boss for a team transfer

You can reduce unpredictability by being prepared in advance, even though your preparedness will never be 100%.

Relationship building is an important part of work. Don’t just build the relationship with people you think your work is related, because you’d never know who you’d be working with later on. The wider your network, the more chance that you’ll be working with someone who is at least not a stranger to you.

Motivation. If you ask someone to help you, you need to consider “what’s in it” for her. If you compete for resources with your peer, you should understand why she wants the additional resources — is it because she really needs the resource or just wants to build her empire? Does your peer always want the perfect solution or does he just want to feel technically superior to you? When you can anticipate the motivation, you can prepare your interaction and minimize surprises.

Personality traits can serve as a useful reference when predicting how people behave, such as theoretical vs practical, playful vs serious, self-centered vs team player, argumentative vs consensus-driven, high ego vs humility, emotional vs calm, risk-taking vs prudent, big-picture mindset vs detail-oriented, assertive vs passive, creative vs unimaginative. By being aware of what kind of person you’re dealing with, you can adjust your style of interaction to make the partnership more harmonized and effective.

Relationship, motivation and personality are references for you to anticipate the outcome of the interaction in order to prepare for it.

If you know your peers have a high ego, perfectionistic and argumentative, you can set the objective of your solution presentation meeting upfront as “to find the best solution that meets the deadline and satisfies the minimum requirements”. This way, they may knock down your proposal but you will likely get an agreed solution at the conclusion of the meeting.

If you are competing for resources with your peer, it’s always better to find common ground, steer towards shared goals and explore win-win solutions. But if your peer happens to be assertive, self-centered and risk-taking, you might change your strategy and be prepared to fight! This means putting less effort in trying to convince your peer but focusing more on building a case to convince your boss why you deserve more resource. For example, instead of trying to prove you need X people to do Y pieces of work, you may stress on the benefits of your project or the risk of failure.

If you boss is self-centered, doesn’t have a big-picture mindset, but eager to get his next promotion, you should expect he will object your request to transfer before you complete the project for him. You either wait or you simply go through the necessary HR process to apply for change and give him sufficient advance notice. There’s no point to try to convince him.

You may worry about burning bridges with your boss. If you observe your boss well, and have seen examples he put himself before his team, his plausible motivation in keeping a relationship with you is for you to help him achieve his objectives. So, your strategy should be to ensure others around you and your boss see your move as reasonable and fair.

Career Uncertainties

There are 3 things you can do to manage your career uncertainties.

  1. Explore
  2. Pursue
  3. Maximize your value

If you need help with identifying your career preference, here is an article that can help: How to figure out your career: especially if you don’t know what you want.

If you are at your early stage of career, exploring your options should be a priority. It is normal at this stage that you are not sure what you like and what you are good at. Your potentials are simply not yet fully realized. The answers will come by when you bump into a job that’s a good fit for you. Trying out different roles and switching every 6–9 months would be a good strategy.

If there is a job that sounds right for you, but you feel you’re not qualified, you should still pursue it. You should find out what it takes to get the job and then take every opportunity to acquire the necessary skills and experience. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing to stop you from applying for it right away! If you get rejected, at least you may learn what the minimum requirements are. As well, you can show your potential boss that you’re very interested in the job.

Whether you know what you want or are in pursuance of a career target, maximizing your value is always a worthwhile investment of your energy. It means not only equipping your knowledge and skill, but also your value in the company and your marketability in the industry.

For ideas of what you can do to maximize your value, you may refer to the article 10 things to learn from your workplace to advance your career.

Environmental Uncertainties

External environment factors have impacts at the organization level, such as the need for your company to downsize in order to survive, new technologies altering or displacing jobs, or a country where you do business just got sanctioned.

While most of the time you can’t directly change or prevent such macro current, there are 3 productive actions you may take to strengthen your career well-being:

  1. Observe and anticipate
  2. Influence and navigate
  3. Monitor and adjust

You need to be aware of those environmental factors that may affect your work if you were to proactively manage them. So, keeping your eyes open to your surrounding as well as the bigger picture of the industry is a must. Your career is more than just doing your job.

If your job involves manual labour or decisions based on a predetermined set of rules, it may be at risk of being replaced by robotics or artificial intelligence. You should look into how soon the technology may become mainstream, and you can start acquiring skills on how to use such technologies.

If your company culture advocates stability, it will likely resist change and innovation. If it’s a public organization whose fate is more influenced by politics than business, it may be fine for you to stay there if your position is secure and you prefer a stable environment. Otherwise, your company will be fighting an uphill battle to survive. The longer you stay, the higher the risk your skills will be outdated.

Small companies that promote innovation and disruptions may be fun to work in, but it will also mean high stress and high volatility. You should be clear your personality is a fit for this type of work. Also, if you aspire to pursue a managerial career, small companies usually lack the robust structure and formal management discipline to give you the right exposure.

Company politics is often annoying, if not disgusting. But all companies have some form of politics. You are better off learning how the politics work, determining your bottom line, and developing your skills to navigate through them.

Navigating company politics is a complex topic and deserves an article on its own. Generally, company politics can be seen as the way to get things done and to get recognized for achievements.

Company politics influences employees behaviour. So the first rule is don’t get personal or emotional against your colleagues. You have to play the game.

If you run into a bureaucratic obstacle, you should not be upset with the people who operate the process. You should direct your energy at changing the process. If you have little chance to be successful in changing the process, you are better off giving in than fighting it.

If your company promotes people to manager based on the number of subordinates in his reporting line, you have a choice to increase your staff level by inflating your projected budget or seek to undertake large and important projects. The former strategy may be easier but may damage your reputation. The latter strategy will not only give you the chance to win but also build your experience and improve your resume.

Last but not least, favouritism is probably one of the nastiest politics. Some people advance their career by pleasing the bosses and chanting the company slogan rather than doing their job. The positions sustained through favouritism will be jeopardized when there is a change in management or company strategy. There is a difference between being a go-to person and playing favouritism.

The book Linchpin (by Seth Godin) is one of the best in the leadership series to describe how you can become the go-to person and be indispensable.


Managing uncertainties needs discipline. If you have a stable job, why should you worry about your future now instead of enjoying your spare time? If your boss is bad, what’s the point to fight against him? Technologies change every day, how can I learn them all?

Managing uncertainties is part of your job. If you work 8 hours a day, you should spend at least 2 hours of your office time every week as your “uncertainty workshop”, analyzing the type of uncertainties you face and applying the appropriate approach to address them. The more senior you are, the more time you should spend on addressing uncertainties.

Managing uncertainties doesn’t always help you win, but it will inform you to fight or flight. It makes the difference between “you win the battle but lose the war” and “you lose the battle but win the war”.

Retired executive of a large global financial institution with a passion to help young adults develop their career (

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