A simplified workplace image

How do Olympic athletes manage uncertainty?

September 6, 2021

If you are uncertain about whether you are experiencing uncertainty, then all you have to do is reflect on your emotional state. If you are anxious, this emotion evolved to keep us vigilant and on guard where a future outcome is, well, uncertain. I am certain of that.

Have you ever observed an Olympic athlete and wonder how they keep their nerve? Athletes can train all year around for a brief moment orevent only to crumble under pressure at the worst possible time.

In contrast, those athletes who take the gold medal somehow manage to navigate uncertain waters to achieve greatness.

Since we are talking about uncertain waters, why not continue this blog with a literal example: Aussie gold-medallist and—uncertain waters specialist / canoeist—Jessica Fox.

When Jess sets off in her canoe she doesn’t know how the currents will hit her and from what angle or with how much force. Her ability to shift her weight, manoeuvre her paddle, and keep her eyes on the prize mean she’s able to constantly adapt and navigate uncertain waters. 

Clearly her physical talents and experience play a part. But there’s more to it than just practise otherwise everyone would win the gold. Rather, there are many strategies that can be taken to reduce future uncertainty. 

Aside from winning gold medals, managing future uncertainty is something of interest to all of us. We want to predict health complaints, minimise financial losses, thwart COVID lockdowns, and navigate the myriad of workplace issues that organisations face daily.

Overly complex workplaces can be slow and lumbering in the irresponse to uncertainty. Whether it’s responding to a new innovation or addressing a critical risk, when a workplace is tied up in complex structures, unclear roles or confusing processes—which inhibit decision-making and promptaction—they are quickly overtaken by organisations that are lean, agile and responsive.

To put it another way, the complex organisations can be abit like the Titanic, moving slowly towards an iceberg. I’m sure we won’t have anymore sea-faring analogies, sorry.

A simplified workplace uses more effective strategies to manage unexpected scenarios as they arise, like a strong under-current, orgod-forbid, a capsize (sorry, couldn’t help it).

These strategies are most often built and maintained through effective management and leadership.

Research has revealed four common cultural characteristicsof organisations that navigate uncertainty through a high level of adaptability:

  1. Take the plunge

    People need to feel comfortable taking risks in achieving their goals or targets. This helps them think outside the box and anticipate unexpected risks as well as promoting new ideas. This can be encouraged by role-modelling this behaviour, or embracing mistakes as an opportunity to learn—like Jess’ bronze in the kayaking before her gold in canoeing.

  2. Considering a new stroke

    Don’t dismiss innovative ideas that break the status quo, like taking risks. In fact, make it an essential part of work. Nobody should take stupid risks, like cutting corners on a construction site, but workplaces should be open to coming up with new ideas, testing products and exposing staff to new situations—not just the stuff they’re used to doing. Practising in uncertain situations allows individuals to get used to feeling uncomfortable and recognising that those situations won’t kill them.

  3. Promote collaboration amongst the crew

    Highly adaptive organisations are characterised by an environment where no issue is too sensitive to discuss, and collaboration offers an opportunity to question assumptions and reframe issues as they arise—potentially unlocking new solutions. People can find comfort in the fact that they are in it together when uncertainty arises so that they can work together to solve problems and share the failures and successes.

  4. Recognise their brilliance…(i.e. don’t make them walk the plank)

    Organisations that avoid uncertainty, shut down ideas and objections from individuals. In contrast, organisations that value ideas from all levels of the organisation, invite change and will, therefore, change faster in response to uncertainty. How do we invite individuals to do this? It is important to reward and recognise individuals for wanting to bring about positive changes. Give these individuals a gold medal, they are your champions—the ones truly invested in supporting the workplace.

As the corporate world around us continues to over-complicate itself, successful organisations will design workplaces to adapt to uncertainty by facing challenges and change head on, ducking and weaving like an Olympic boxer…sorry, wrong sport…some will get swept up in uncertain waters, others will adapt their way to achieving their goals. 


1. Boylan, S.A.,& Turner, K. (2017). Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment. Journal of Leadership Education. doi:10.12806/V16/I2/T2  

2. Paulsen, N.,Tourish, D., & Difonzo, N. (2004). Uncertainty during organizational change: Is it all about control? European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 13(3), 345-365.

3. Goldstein,J., Hazy, J.K., & Lichtenstein, B.B. (2010). Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership. Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation. Palgrave Macmillan.

4. Heifetz, R.,Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practise of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Review Press. Boston Mass.

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