Coping with Uncertainty

Freak Out It’s been over three years since the financial crisis of 2008.  Joblessness is high, optimism low.  Just in the last four months alone, the New York area has had epic weather (Hurricane Irene, floods, the Halloween blizzard) and an earthquake. Worst of all, no one knows when the turmoil (natural or economic) will end. Is it any wonder people are stressed?

Dr. James S. Gordon, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, wrote the following sobering words in the Washington Post in 2009:

I have been practicing psychiatry for 40 years, but I’ve never seen this much stress and worry about economic well-being and the future. There is a sense that the ground is no longer solid, that a system we all thought would sustain us no longer works as we were told it would. … In this uncertain time, symptoms of chronic illnesses — hypertension, back pain, diabetes — that were controlled or dormant are erupting. Low-level depression, whose hallmarks are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, is endemic.

Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has an equally direct summary of our current state of affairs:

We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.  …  One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty.

If that’s what’s happening in the general population, what’s happening in the law firm world?  Toby Brown, a wise observer of law firms and the economy recently had an epiphany about the widespread longing for a return to simpler, more certain times:  it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, he believes that the current “level of uncertainty may be here to stay. And it may even expand in the future. …  The bottom line is that rapid change results in uncertainty. And rapid change has become the norm.”

It’s pretty grim stuff.  So what can we do if we can’t get under it, over it or around it?  How do we get through it?  How do we cope with uncertainty? Dr. Gordon has the following recommendations for individuals:

  • Begin a meditation practice.
  • Move your body.
  • Reach out to others.
  • Find someone who will listen and help you take a realistic look at your situation.
  • Let your imagination help you find healing — and new meaning and purpose.
  • Speak and act on your own behalf.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, suggests the following strategies to help organizations cope with uncertainty and find opportunity:

  • Provide certainty of process.
  • Tackle maintenance and repair.
  • Let ideas flow.
  • Mobilize appreciation for key constituencies.
  • Use purpose and values to “think beyond.”

For law firms that may be choking on the thought of spending money in these uncertain times, Toby Brown has the following recommendation:

In our conversation, we wondered with so much uncertainty where should a law firm invest its IT dollars? Our answer: invest in flexible infrastructure. Uncertainty drives the need to be able to adjust quickly to changing environments, driving the need to add and remove functionalities under very short turnarounds.

I’d take Toby’s advice one step further. In these uncertain times organizations should be investing to help make their people as flexible and resilient as possible.  This is what will help organizations respond quickly and appropriately to changes in the environment.  To be clear, in this context resilience does not mean simply reverting to the status quo ante.  The better definition of resilience for these purposes points to growth and progress rather than reversion:

Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances.

While it is unlikely that 2012 will bring more certainty, let’s hope that we can bring more flexibility and resilience to 2012.  Onward and upward!

[Hat tip to Ron Donaldson for reminding me of Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability.]

[Photo Credit: Frau Shizzle]

 

 

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