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How to Support Anxious, Risk Averse Employees

The late spiritual teacher Ram Dass once wrote, “What I’ve noticed in most of the institutions I’ve been part of is that for the first few years it’s very exciting, and everybody feels challenged and at the living edge. Then everybody figures out how to socialize the game, how to appear to be changing and not actually changing and everybody, because they have children and families now, has to get insurance policies… They’ve got to make the thing stable, and that sort of tempers their way of playing with that chaotic edge and recognizing what is interesting.”

What Ram Dass is describing, is the need for certainty.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with our need for certainty. It’s simply the need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable. We all experience this need to varying degrees throughout our daily lives. But, if we become over-attached to our need for certainty, we limit our own potential, our vision, and the number of opportunities that come our way. In short, we become less effective.

How to Spot Someone with a High Need for Certainty:

Most of us are not fans of uncertainty. Not a lot of people would say, “Yes please, bring me a whopping helping of I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen!”.

During times of crisis, a healthy need for certainty can grow into an unhealthy attachment. We want to know what will happen next. We want to be assured that things will go back to normal.

But people who have a high need for certainty even when things are so-called normal will be struggling even more during crisis.

They’re actually fairly easy to spot. For starters, they don’t love change. In fact, they are often seen as defenders of the status quo. They don’t like risk. And because of this, they often stay in the same job for many years.

They are also solid, dependable, and due to their longer tenures, very knowledgeable about their jobs and the organizations they work for. So, you don’t want to get rid of them. You want to support them so they can perform at the highest level possible.

How to Support Someone with a High Need for Certainty:

When we develop an over-attachment to certainty, we risk falling into a pattern of path dependence – self-limiting behaviors based on what’s worked in the past, or the way we’ve always done things. When we’re path dependent, we rely on what has been – processes that worked in the past, ideas and solutions that worked in the past, data and performance indicators that worked in the past, structures that worked in the past and people that worked in the past.

In other words, path dependence produces solutions for yesterday.

What’s a leader to do? Begin by changing the conversation.

When talking to someone with a high need for certainty, it’s best not to use phrases like “This changes everything!” Or “Who knows where we’ll end up!”. Save those for your variety lovers.

At the same time, be aware of your own need for certainty and resist the urge to reassure someone that things will return to normal. You don’t know that. Promising that the changes aren’t that big, or the situation really isn’t that bad, or that things aren’t really that complicated is tempting, but it’s a form of denial. In the field of System Leadership Theory, this type of denial is known as “absencing”.

Absencing causes us to cling to the past and to shut off what’s emerging around us. At its worst, it causes us to turn our backs on those being affected by the change. And ultimately, we turn our backs on ourselves. Absencing leaves us incapable of responding and creating and innovating.

The irony of absencing is that it can look like strong leadership, but it is in fact, an abdication of leadership. When we’re certain, we don’t seek out uncomfortable facts and data. We don’t seek out opposing views. And we’re left unprepared to face the challenges of the rapidly changing world we’re attempting to deny.

Leadership is about accepting the uncertainty and ambiguity and learning to thrive despite them. Your job is to give employees certainty within the uncertainty. And that doesn’t mean telling them lies, nice stories or giving them false confidence and reassurance. It means giving them the only kind of certainty that matters, the certainty of values, purpose, and mission.

Reward courage and embrace failure. When failure becomes a learning opportunity rather than an embarrassment, even certainty lovers are more willing to try something new.

For those employees who still have difficulty moving past their need for certainty, the best option is to change their perception of where risk lies. The conversation becomes: Remaining static is dangerous. Embracing change is safe.

And finally, you have to mean it.

There’s what you say, and what you do. It’s not okay to say stasis is dangerous, only to stifle change-making behaviors. It’s not okay to blither on about values, only to ignore them at budget time. It’s not okay to say failure is a learning opportunity only to fire the person who fails. It’s not okay to tell a team to be courageous, only to hinder their efforts to innovate.

Don’t say you’re cool with uncertainty simply because you wish it were so.

And mean it.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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