This is a guest blog by Jeff Perry
“Treat mistakes as learning, not failure” ~ Dan Sullivan
“Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast” ~ Tom Peters
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas Edison
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ~ Winston Churchill
These quotes, and others like them, seem to be preached more and more, all of the time. Viewing failure in this way is actually quite important; it allows us to move through uncertainty, even though that uncertainty can be a source of great fear. But believing in the principle doesn’t mean it’s automatically easy to actually do it. So how do we deal with fear, move through uncertainty, and take action anyway? Here are four ideas:
Engage Your Rational Brain
Yes, there is some psychology and biology that is actually working against us. Our brains are wired to react to uncertainty with fear. Studies show that the less information we have to go on, the more irrational and erratic human decisions become. This is because the fear we feel shifts control to the limbic system in the brain.
This works great as a survival mechanism (like when cavemen weren’t sure what was hiding in the bushes), but not quite as well when we must deal with modern uncertainty. If we can shift this fear response toward more rational thinking, we can make clearer decisions. This requires working on increasing our emotional intelligence — being able to recognize our fearful feelings and moving through them, rather than succumbing to them.
Create an Environment of Psychological Safety
Organizational and team cultures can play a huge role in how we respond to professional uncertainty. A few years ago, Google embarked on Project Aristotle, a research initiative with the goal of defining what makes a team effective. The #1 team behavior that predicted a high-performing team was psychological safety.
This is all about controlling and modeling how the team perceives risk and consequences. This can include simple risks, such as asking a question, suggesting a new idea, or taking ownership of a problem. It really comes down to trust. To increase this in your teams, start extending trust. Don’t put ideas down; instead, seek to find the good in them. If someone makes a mistake, look for the lesson to learn, not for the blame to assign. Likely, they’ll treat you the same.
Experiment to Learn
As engineers, we are familiar with the scientific process. Well, this same process can be used to reduce uncertainty as we perform experiments that give us data and information we can learn from.
For example, a few years ago I was assigned to improve an internal process that was taking over two weeks to move through every time. I needed to get the average time down to less than one day for us to make progress. I had no idea if this was even possible. My team had a few ideas on what the issue could be, we started collecting data, and we tried various approaches to see what moved the needle. It took a combination of ideas from the whole team, but within two months we started averaging turnarounds that were less than 0.5 days. It took data collection, experimentation, and teamwork, but we were able to make it happen.
Find an Accountability Partner
If we can’t deal with uncertainty in a rational way because we are too close to it, perhaps someone with an outside perspective can. Finding a mentor and accountability partner who can push us beyond our comfort zones can help us move through uncertainty.
Accountability is a massive force that can move us beyond what we think is possible. It took some mentors for me to see through some mindset issues that I had. When things didn’t work out, I used to spent a lot of mental and physical energy blaming my circumstances and other people for the challenges I was facing. Through leaning on others, and their help in getting me to take action despite my fears, I now work hard to own my circumstances and take responsibility for my results. There is still a lot of room to improve, but things are better.
Fear of uncertainty is a natural response, and overcoming it will not be an immediate change. However, working on engaging your rational brain, creating environments of psychological safety, running experiments, and finding an accountability partner can help us take action despite our fears. If we can do this, we are sure to find more learning, growth, and success.
About Jeff Perry
Jeff has an uncommon ability to grow people in technical organizations; he has the engineering skills to align cultures and teams with innovative, high-tech initiatives. He eagerly shares his passions for culture, creativity, engineering, technology, and good business.
After years spent as a technical contributor/leader in software, mechanical, and manufacturing engineering environments, Jeff decided to become an entrepreneur and started More Than Engineering. His passion is to help technical individuals and leaders use the fundamental principles of science and engineering and apply them to their own leadership and personal growth. To do this, they need to be more than just engineers, but humans who create. Jeff started More Than Engineering, a service to coach and grow engineers beyond their technical skills and increase their positive impact in their organizations and communities.
Using his unique blend of technical and business experience/education with a knack for training and coaching, Jeff can help people see in themselves what they can’t see and achieve more than they thought possible. With his mature outlook on relationships and circumstances, Jeff can quickly rise above and see the big picture in order to recognize opportunities to solve debilitating issues facing people and projects.
Jeff is a talented speaker and trainer, having delivered presentations and workshops to diverse groups large and small.
Personally, Jeff loves making delicious homemade ice cream, visiting county fairs, playing with his two beautiful daughters, and learning new stuff. On top of all that, he has a goal to jump higher so he can dunk a basketball.
Jeff recently launched a new free training on the 5 Shifts needed to move into engineering leadership — go here to register and watch it. Feel free to reach out to Jeff on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about how you take action in your career despite being uncertain about certain things.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success