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The end of certainty?

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Embrace the unknown

HR Zone member Karen Drury examines certainty and the role it plays in how we approach work, life and change, and offers some advice on how employers can help staff embrace the unknown.


There was a time, say the popular press, that a life sentence meant 20 years, possibly 30. There was also a time when doctors were trusted implicitly and people believed that drugs cured illnesses. This was probably the same time that employees believed in, and companies promised, a ‘job for life’.

No longer. In 1966, Ian Brady received three terms of life imprisonment and is still in gaol, 39 years later. Today, murderers get an average of 14 years.

The end of ‘jobs for life’ is said to date back to the late 1980s and the dockers’ strike. The 1947 National Dock Labour Scheme gave dockers significant employment rights – registered dockers laid off by companies bound by the scheme had to be taken on by another or be paid £25,000, meaning they virtually had a ‘job for life’. The employment secretary Norman Fowler scrapped the scheme.

So – have the certainties our parents knew disappeared? It’s more complicated than the numbers suggest.

“A 2006 global study identified the UK as having the world’s most pessimistic workers, and the biggest percentage increase of employees who thought they might lose their jobs in the next year.”

There is scant evidence for the disappearance of jobs for life. The ONS Labour Force Survey showed an overall decline in people in temporary employment, from 1.6m to 1.4m between 2001 and 2006.

And according to Labour Market Trends, although tenure of the average job has declined between 1996 and 2001, it only fell by three and a half months, to 90 months. Conversely, the proportion of people employed for two to five years has increased by approximately 3 per cent.

Perhaps the issue is not that the future is more uncertain – but that we are unconvinced by the numbers and feel insecure.

Despite a generally stable work environment, a 2006 global study identified the UK as having the world’s most pessimistic workers, and the biggest percentage increase of employees who thought they might lose their jobs in the next year.

A more positive spin

This fear is not productive or healthy. Perhaps as we go into 2008, ‘uncertainty’ needs to be re-framed more positively.

In times of change, presenting challenges as opportunities is seen as cynical management manipulation to reduce resistance. But a change of attitude towards ambivalence might be helpful, even liberating. There are times when uncertainty can be a good thing.

Steve Jobs believes that being fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. He went on to start NeXT and Pixar, and met his future wife.

So, what can employers do to help people embrace uncertainty and enable employees to find the excitement in the unknown? Here are a few tips:

  • Move people – swap people into different roles and to different parts of the business to develop their capacity to deal with changed environments – but provide support to reduce your risks, and theirs.

  • Challenge people to come up with new ways of doing things that haven’t been done before; provide a risk-free environment to do this, and be prepared to accept some failures.

  • Most people work best within boundaries – so give them some. Standards of behaviour, attitudes to things such as deadlines, budgets. But then give freedom beyond these.

  • Review projects with the people involved and make sure they acknowledge the new things they’ve learnt; suggest they develop a skills list and keep it up to date.

  • Encourage and develop tools for problem solving as a conscious activity; so people are equipped to think round personal as well as professional issues and to explore solutions. This way, when the environment changes, employees know how to generate their own options.

  • Teach people about the process of personal change and help them to understand that their feelings are a natural, even desirable response – a source of energy that can be turned into something productive for them and their employer.

  • Finally, don’t be surprised if you lose a few people – making change an opportunity may mean that they take the opportunity elsewhere.

2 Responses

  1. good point!
    Thanks for the comment, Rob.

    And in fact, you might add this point to the tips for helping people make the most of uncertainty – flexible planning or contingency thinking, which might help employees feel a bit more secure in any case, give them a sense of control.

  2. And there’s always the flip side…
    I think that the flip side of this coin is that there are increasing numbers of people who, while accepting the uncertainty that exists without fearing it, also do not plan for the long-term. This might have a knock-on effect on things like saving and investment in pensions. Indeed, if you think about it, we are becoming more of a live now, spend now society and uncertainty at work way be contributing to that.

    Business Psychologist

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