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Towards Safe(r) Uncertainty: Support for Managers

By Jenn McKinney . . .

These are unprecedented times for all of us. What once was considered ‘normal’ is now what used to be (for the moment). We have entered a time of systemic flux (Murmurations Writing Project, 2020) where new ways of being are emerging and changing at quite a fast rate. We are finding that these changes have relational consequences for us both personally and professionally and these changes call for different ways of responding to issues presented to us (ibid).  We may be worried about family and in our working life our worries may be around social distancing, hygiene, PPE, changing work practices and new ways of operating.  Many things no longer feel ‘second nature’. And therefore, our responses can change quite a bit depending on how we are emotionally positioned in relation to the uncertainties presented by the current coronavirus pandemic.

As a way of guiding managers and empowering them to navigate their way through unchartered territory, we have adapted the safe uncertainty framework to be used as a sort of compass. This framework originates from the work of Barry Mason, a systemic and family psychotherapist.  As Mason describes it “The framework of safe uncertainty is particularly associated with addressing risk factors and how it can contribute to the development and maintenance of safer relationships” (2019, p.343). We need to make way for the unsaid or the not yet said and open up space for conversations that may feel very difficult.  People will be experiencing different things.  Fear and anxiety may preoccupy some people while others may be experiencing such a sense of loss- loss of relationships through social distancing and perhaps loss of people from their lives (family/friends/neighbours and indeed service users).  In talking about relationships we do not refer only to the relationships between people but our relationship to the pandemic itself, to our sense of being, our sense of belonging and our relationship to our work.

Because coronavirus has changed life so much, the introduction of too much difference (Andersen, 1987) might contribute to people feeling less safe (Mason, 2019, p.344). While manuals, checklists, policies and procedures are both necessary and helpful, Mason reminds us that they do not do the work for us. So the safe uncertainty framework is a way of helping us think beyond checklists and be more creative during uncertain times.  Mason realised that an engagement with uncertainty was part of a creative process. He developed the safe uncertainty framework in the form of a quadrant.  The four axes of the quadrant are: safe, unsafe, certain, uncertain. These gave rise to four positions: unsafe uncertainty; safe certainty; unsafe certainty and safe uncertainty (see Figure 1 below).

The scenarios below provide questions that you can use as a manager to enable your staff to reposition themselves.  You can also use the questions for your own reflective use when you find yourself going into different positions in these uncertain times. 

Remember: This is not prescriptive.  You can use the questions in creative ways.  The questions are not limited to the positions used but can cross over to be used in any of the scenarios provided.

This guide is to be used alongside other guidance provided on physical safety and psychological wellbeing.  We would particularly like you to refer to Covid 19: Looking After your Social Wellbeing provided by the Department of Health (Appendix   ).  This provides support to staff for self-care.

Safe(r) Uncertainty

We begin by explaining what safe(r) uncertainty is as this is the position that we are always trying to move towards.  In working with staff during these difficult times you can take a position of safe(r) uncertainty with them through being curious and exploratory.  A position of safe uncertainty is an always evolving position.  It gives staff permission to express doubt, uncertainty, and stuckness in a way that feels safer through experiencing safer relationships in the workplace.

We adapted Mason’s safe uncertainty to safe(r) uncertainty since it is more realistic in these times where we can only work towards safety, not guarantee it.  The R is bracketed on purpose as this represents:

  • Restraints
  • Resources
  • Reflexivity
  • Relational thinking

Restraints

Practising the safe uncertainty framework gives permission to talk about difficult things including the constraints that face us.  It prevents avoiding such conversation.  At the same time it helps us to think about the difficulties so that we can then go on to think about the resources and strengths that we have.  It calls for creativity and for a strengths based approach drawing out the agency of individuals and teams. 

Resources

When things feel unsafe and/or uncertain we tend to focus on the negatives and our conversations can become quite problem saturated.  This happens for everyone particularly when we are experiencing stress and discomfort.  Therefore, alongside exploring the difficulties we need to explore the possibilities for the future.  This leads to goals and the creation of action plans that can help us to feel supported in our work.

Reflexivity

“Reflexivity is a stance we take towards the patterns we are co-creating when we communicate as well as being a set of practical skills and abilities that we can use” (Hedges, 2010, p.3).  It involves the ability to reflect-in-action (to think in the moment about our positions and actions and to reposition ourselves as necessary) and reflection-on-action (to think about our actions after the activity and to think about what went well and what we could have done differently).

This is important as we are always adjusting our actions to be more helpful in situations.  This is important at all times and particularly during the pandemic as we will be learning as we go along and will be actively experimenting with new ideas and new ways of working.

Just take a moment to do the following short exercises:

Take a situation that you are uncertain about and imagine what could happen if it turns out ten times better than you hope it will. What emotions would you have attached to that experience? How would releasing expectation free you?

  • Is there any new information emerging in your answers?
  • What have you become more aware of now?
  • How does focusing on solutions and a more positive future leave you feeling?

Examine your uncertainty. What lies at its root? What emotion comes up when you think about doing the thing that you’re uncertain about?

  • In comparison to the first exercise how does focusing on the problem leave you feeling?

Moving towards a position of safe(r) uncertainty means that we listen to the issues and the difficulties.  However, we must move towards new possibilities and solutions in order to move forward.  This guide is about moving towards possibilities.  Through reflection we learn and adjust to new situations, actively experimenting with new ideas and creativity alongside working with guidelines and policies and procedures.

Relational thinking

Shotter’s ideas on ‘withness’ or systemic thinking shine a light on the relational aspect of shared phenomenon, in this case, the highly visible invisible Covid-19.  His ideas also highlight important things to consider when relating to each other about our shared experiences. 

“It is a knowing what to do with one’s participation within a situation, with one’s ‘place’ within it, and with how one might ‘go on’ playing one’s part within it – a knowing in which one is affected by one’s surroundings…” (2012, p.3).

How can we play an active useful part in moving forward? We can only actively experiment with ideas, holding the other in mind, being aware of our ethical intent, to collaboratively work through the situation with compassion and with care.  We can play our part in empowering others to share the narratives of those experiences.  The ideas in this paper are indeed just ideas, an opportunity to consider how we might have conversations or at least begin those conversations.  While questions have been provided there is the possibility that questions are only considered as a technique, without much thought.  However, the thoughts that lie behind the questions are most important and we must focus on our intent (Tomm, 1988).

Shotter again navigates us, giving us a sense of direction with our thoughts, encouraging us to pay attention to noticings (2012, p.4). 

  • Being struck by an event.  With Covid-19 every single one of us has been impacted in one way or another, from having to change our practices, to changing how we relate to others, to being financially impacted, to not having treatment for an illness, to not being able to be with a sick loved one, to losing someone who is near and dear to us without the endings we would have liked.
  • The sensing of a unique unitary whole.
  • A disquiet at things not being quite right. This has emerged in many ways during Covid-19.  There are feelings of fear for the self and others and a wondering about when or how we might emerge from this difficult time.
  • The coming into being of a type of public life that can strengthen solidarity, public freedom, a willingness to talk and to listen, mutual debate, and a commitment to rational persuasion.  Covid-19 has taught us many things- to support each other, to collaborate, to appreciate the relationships that we have, to pay attention to ecological systems and the impact made on them.  Let us not forget about those things and find ways to hold these in mind and take those forward with us.
  • What is not being said.  We need to find dialogical ways to open up conversation and work with conflict in our lives.  We can begin that within our working environments taking relational risks with each other in order to try to begin to understand the other and to move towards a spirit of openness.
  • Telling moments when collective narratives begin to be revealed, e.g., when people begin to say “This is how we do things around here.  Gathering these narratives is a starting point.  This requires us to think about what has worked well, what hasn’t worked, and what we can carry forward to improve our practices.
  •  Disquiets…a feeling that there is still a ‘something more ’that has not yet been captured.  It feels that we are in a state of waiting at the minute.  We are continuing to move through a process where other ideas will emerge that may change the future in a positive way.

When we are in dialogue with staff, these noticings are important to help us to think about the collective narratives we have, to consider what is not being said or the not yet said, to open up conversations and let difference emerge, to not lose sense of the things that we have learned along the way.

Unsafe Uncertainty

Within this position staff can feel like things are chaotic and that they are powerless to change anything.  Finding themselves in this position can feel very paralysing, meaning that they do not know what to do or how to do it.  This position is often related to our stress responses where we feel overwhelmed by current circumstances.  This can also be a lonely experience where we feel unable to talk to others about how we are feeling for fear of being judged or seen to be incompetent.  There can be a tendency therefore to remain silent, to bear the burden ourselves and to remain stuck. 

To give an example, Mary was feeling overwhelmed by the news about covid19.  Being reminded numerous times of the pandemic on the television, feeling unsafe when she left her home, feeling a bit hopeless left her feeling very powerless.  In addition to this she was worried about how she could continue to work with service users. How could she do this without seeing some people face to face?  How could talking on the phone feel safe?  Therefore she tended to avoid making contact with them. She kept worrying about what she should be doing but found herself unable to do it.  The longer this went on the more difficult it became to do something and the more difficult it was to bring this up to her manager.  The manager noticed that Mary was providing little output and was quiet in her work.  When asked to talk about cases the manager noticed that Mary would deflect the conversation to talk about other things.  The manager found himself feeling frustrated and annoyed towards Mary.  The more he tried to ask Mary to do something Mary would withdraw further and at times became very emotional.  So what might help the manager to help Mary?

The first place to start with any of these positions is to listen to the narratives that staff bring.  Feelings of fear and anxiety are very real and people want to be heard and understood.   Therefore, the following statements/questions can set a context where space can be opened up for further conversations:

  • What would you like to talk about?
  • Tell me what is going on for you at this point in time.
  • What is your greatest worry at the moment?
  • How long have you been thinking about this?

  • What areas of work do you feel most stuck in?
  • What are the resources that you bring with you that can help you to manage this?
  • What can I or other people do to help you through this?
  • What would you like to see happening that would help you to feel more confident in moving forward now?

  • Are you focused on what’s wrong or what’s right?
  • Is that a story or the truth?
  • How can you find out?
  • What rules do you have that are getting in the way?

  • Have you solved problems like this before?/ Have you successfully handled a similar situation before? (Reality)
  • Have you ever experienced something like this before?
  • If you changed your belief about this, what would be possible?

  • What are some concrete steps you could take to achieve this goal?
  • How might you turn these steps into a plan?
  • What will success look like? How will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
  • How will you prepare for each step?
  • How do you plan to motivate yourself when obstacles arise? What are some ways to motivate yourself to get started?
  • What do you imagine it would look like if you could accomplish this? (Goal)

  • Describe the existing situation…
  • What do you think you will need to do?
  • What might your family or friends suggest that you do? (Options)
  • What can you control about this situation? (Options)
  • What advice would you give someone else in a similar situation? (Options)

  • What’s your next step after today? (What Next)
  • How can you keep yourself on track with this? (What Next)

It may be helpful for Mary to be given some guidance that would help to manage her anxiety such as:

  • To focus on those areas that she can control
  • Avoid constantly listening to the news or looking up the internet
  • Be aware of picking up on things that have no foundation.
  • Talk to someone.  Amazingly we can often find that others have had similar experiences.
  • Negotiating a contract of work for supervision where these unique experiences can be discussed on a regular basis with an action and support plan in place.

Other questions to use to help guide Mary might include:

  • On a scale of 1-10 where 1 means that you have no idea how to manage work at this time and 10 means you are definite about what you need to do at this point in time where would you place yourself on this scale?
  • If for example Mary places herself at a 2, you might ask “So you’re not at a 1.  That’s good. What is it that is helping you to stay at a 2?’  If you could move to 3 what would you need to do to achieve this?  How could other people help you to move a little bit further along the scale?’  How would you know when you had reached a 3?
  • Have there been other times in your life where you felt unsafe or uncertain and you managed your way through this?  What was it that you did that helped you manage this?  Were there things that other people did that helped you manage it?

Safe Certainty

In this domain, there is a desire for certainty and this is the place that people generally want to be in.  However, 100% certainty is never guaranteed when working with people and the complex issues that they bring. Within the covid-19 context and the known risks and unknown territory this is not achievable.  However, people can still try to move into this position that they become so safety orientated that they can switch off from the work as a protective mechanism.  Or alternatively, people may  look towards other people such as their managers to supply this, feeling that they are unable to do anything themselves.

Example: John’s manager has asked him to find new ways of working with service users as he cannot see many service users face to face.  He is asked to bring ideas about how he can take his work forward.  John has responded by saying “You tell me what I need to do, you’re the manager and if you don’t know how am I supposed to know?  John may be coming from a place of fear.  He may be worried about what is going to happen and does not want to feel responsible if things do not work out.  The result is that the manager becomes annoyed and frustrated at John telling him he needs to do this in the next day or they are going to have to have some really serious conversations about his practice.  How can the manager help John to reposition himself to a more useful place while still showing some compassionate leadership?

Example:  Kate is looking for certainty in her work at the minute.  She is very good at following policies and procedures.  However, with her focus only on this she is struggling to maintain effective working relationships with her colleagues and the service users.  Her fear about coronavirus has led her to refuse to carry out various tasks.  Her team are complaining because they do not feel that Kate is “pulling her weight”.  Her manager does not know what to do.

Both these perspectives, while they may feel protective to the staff, are not long term solutions.  For the manager their work involves helping John and Kate to move towards a position of safe(r) uncertainty. The following questions show just some examples of what can help explore this area and move towards a position of safe(r) uncertainty:

  • What have you tried?
  • What options do you have?
  • What else?
  • How possible is each option?

  • What is it we’re not seeing?
  • What do we need more clarity about?
  • What’s been your/our major learning, insight, or discovery so far?
  •  What’s the next level of thinking we need to do?

  •  If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said in order to reach a deeper level of understanding/clarity, what would that be?
  • What would it take to bring about change on this issue?
  • What could happen that would enable you/us to feel fully engaged and energised about this situation?

  • What’s possible here?
  • How can I support you in taking the next steps/moving forward?
  • What unique contribution can we each make?

  • What challenges might come our way and how might we meet them?
  • What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out in a way that created new possibilities for the future?
  • What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of in this case?

Unsafe Certainty

In this domain life often feels unsafe but the person in this position tends to lean towards feeling convinced of the certainty of their points of view. There is often less curiosity of the other, of the perspectives of other people, and the person in the unsafe certainty position will often try to convince others of the rightness of their perspectives.

This can often happen when people feel stresses, when they can’t see the wood from the trees, when they find it difficult to reflect on what they are seeing or hearing or when they feel they need to have some control over the work that they are doing .  For example Jane feels that she has been practicing for 20 years and that she has lots of experience and that things should not change because of the pandemic.  She feels that this will create more risk.  Her manager feels that while she knows Jane is a very competent worker this is a time to do things differently and to be more creative as service users cannot be seen in the same way as before.

This initially requires Jane’s manager to be genuinely curious about Jane’s experiences both personally and professionally during the pandemic.  The conversation then can be taken forward help jane to move towards a position of safe(r) uncertainty.  Jane perhaps likes to be very clear about what she is doing.  Therefore, framing the work as a set of goals with a plan may feel very useful to her.  Possible questions to explore this further with Jane can include:

  • Can you name some goals that you have for your work with service users during this pandemic?
  • What do you see as the first step to accomplishing your goal?
  • What might you do to take you closer after that?
  • Can you think of some alternatives? Is there another way to look at it?

  • Who might you ask for help? Who else?
  • In the past, what has worked for you? What did you learn from that?
  • Tell me what you think would happen if you tried doing that?
  • What are the pros and cons of this option?
  • Which possible pathway do you feel prepared to go down?

  • What would you do if time/money/resources weren’t an issue?
  • How will you measure your progress using this option?
  • Describe this goal or challenge a bit more…
  • What are some ways this challenge is impacting you or others?

  • Tell me about why you see this as an ideal professional outcome?
  • Help me understand why this change is particularly meaningful to you?

  • Could you tell me how this would help you and your team achieve its mission?  (Here being part of a team is important.  Jane may be quite independent at her work.  However, at the same time there may be occasions when she is feeling quite isolated and alone).
  •  “How come you think that?” 
  • “Thanks for helping me understand your side. I can see where you’re coming from. My point of view is a bit different…”
  •  “Have you ever thought about…?”

Here are some other questions you can use with staff to bring forth new information and to amplify the learning from the conversations.

  • What’s emerging here for you?
  • What new connections are you making?
  • What had real meaning for you from what you’ve heard?
  • What surprised you?
  • What challenged you?

The safe uncertainty framework can be used as a visual tool to explore the different positions and to help you to have conversations.  The theme/issue can be placed at the centre of the framework to begin conversations (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Safe Uncertainty Framework

Questions you can ask:

Where would you say you are positioned at present?

What is it that’s telling you that?

What are the things that are inviting you to take this position?

Where would you most like to be positioned?  How come?

Can I explain a bit about the position of safe(r) uncertainty?

If you were to move closer to this what is the first thing we would need to talk about?

This provides a starting point for the questions and conversations talked about previously.

Some Final Thoughts for Managers

As a manager you are not only managing risk but helping people manage their day to day work.  You play an important role in enabling staff to explore different possibilities in their day to day practice.  You assist staff through drawing out their resources and helping to identify their strengths. Here are some other things to take account of when supporting staff at this time and approaching difficult issues as they present themselves.  Hopefully the thoughts and ideas in this paper are experienced as a support by you.

  1. Plan your questions. Planning is vital.  Don’t ask questions just for the sake of it.  Ask yourself what is your role?  What is the purpose of your work?  What are your goals?  What are the staff member’s goals?  Is the work transparent and clear?
  2. Know your purpose and intent.
  3. Be with the other person. Listen carefully and speak your listener’s language.
  4. Use neutral wording.
  5. Follow general questions with specific ones.
  6. Ask only essential questions.
  7. Focus your questions so they ask one thing at a time.
  8. Listening is as important as the questions.  Feedback from questions will help direct you to what you need to ask next.  Try to understand the staff member’s story as much as possible.
  9. Remain curious and question the assumptions that you might bring.
  10. Seek feedback from the staff member about the conversation.
  11. Try to understand the problem but not let the conversations become solely problem-focused.  Remember that every individual has resources.
  12. Have a two-way conversation that draws out possible ways forward from the individual and invites them to consider other possibilities you have in mind.  This is much more effective than just telling them what they need to do.

Finally, make sure that you are also seeking support, calm and reflection where you need it and ensure that self-care is part of your day to day practice!

References

Andersen, T. (1987). The reflecting team: dialogue and meta dialogue. Family Process, 26, 415–428.

Hedges, F. (2010). Reflexivity in therapeutic practice. UK:Macmillan Education UK.

Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice Writing Project (2020). http://murmurations.cloud/ojs/index.php/murmurations/writingproject

Neden, J. & Burnham, J. (2007). Using relational reflexivity as a resource in teaching family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 29, 4, 359-363.

Mason, B. (2019). Re-visiting safe uncertainty: six perspectives for clinical practice and the assessment of risk.  Journal of Family Therapy 41, 343–356

Shotter, J. (2012). More than cool reason: ‘withness thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’ and ‘thinking about systems.’  International Journal of Collaborative Practices 3, 1, 1-13

Tomm, K. (1988). Interventive interviewing: part III. Intending to ask lineal, circular, strategic or reflexive questions?  Family Process 27, 1-15.

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