Guest blog by Dr. David Wilkinson

We are delighted to welcome one of the world’s leading experts on uncertainty and emotional resilience, Dr David Wilkinson to our 2050 Leadership Team. Here are his latest thoughts about how dealing with uncertainty productively is a key trait needed by commercial leaders of the future.

One of the major factors that will distinguish the leader of tomorrow will be their ability to recognise, confront and deal with uncertainty productively. A lot of recent research has focussed on this core leadership capability, and in particular the effects an intolerance to uncertainty has both on the leader and their teams and organisations.

A new intriguing and unusual study has just been published looking at the connection between the intolerance of uncertainty and a range of other traits.

Intolerance of uncertainty

Intolerance of uncertainty has previously been found to underpin to a significant degree disorders such as anxiety, depression, a range of mood disorders and cognitive biases. It has also been significantly connected to poor behavioural and work performance, especially in situations where people fear making mistakes. Further research done in 2016 found that intolerance of uncertainty is also strongly connected with what are known as maladaptive behaviours such as procrastination, over-checking and micromanagement.

There are two subcategories of intolerance of uncertainty:

  1. Prospective intolerance of uncertainty, which is a general desire for predictability.
  1. Inhibitory intolerance of uncertainty, which is also known as Uncertainty Paralysis or the tendency to avoid, freeze or become immobilised in the face of perceived uncertainty.  

The negative beliefs about uncertainty that people with high levels of intolerance of uncertainty have been found to have result in a lack of flexibility in response to changing situations and a desire for things to be as predictable and certain as possible in their general lives.

In clinical as with many other professional settings, evidence-based practice provides some level of certainty, however even so many decisions have to be made with a lack of best evidence and any degrees of certainty. A study in 2004 found that practitioners with higher levels of intolerance of uncertainty, tended to have a higher frequency of ordering diagnostic tests than their colleagues and are often significantly more hesitant to make a decision. In effect increasing the use of resources in their decision-making.  

Further, it was found that practitioners with higher than average levels of intolerance of uncertainty are significantly less confident in decision making generally and they are significantly less likely to change previous decisions (theirs or others) even in the face of compelling evidence that the initial decision was wrong and should be changed.

Other studies have found that individuals with lower levels of intolerance of uncertainty tend to be more cognitively flexible, imaginative, are calmer and more considered in situations of uncertainty and are significantly less likely to suffer from mental issues. Additionally, they tend to act in a more timely and measured manner, especially in stressful situations.

The study

The study in question looked at the effect of intolerance of uncertainty on student chiropractors. The study, by a team of researchers from Australia and France, tested and observed 444 final year chiropractic students over their 5 years of training. The students were tested for their general levels of intolerance to uncertainty and then given a range of standardised chiropractic situations to diagnose and treat during their training. 69% of the students had intolerance of uncertainty within what are low to normal levels. The rest had what are considered to be high scores for intolerance of uncertainty.

The findings

The study found that students with high levels of intolerance of uncertainty were consistently and significantly more likely to make an incorrect diagnosis. Additionally the researchers found that these students tended to see themselves as below average in their abilities, even though their practice techniques were graded no differently on average than their fellow students.

Whilst overconfidence has been found in previous studies to be associated with poorer decision-making, high levels of intolerance to uncertainty clearly has a negative effect on self-belief (self-efficacy) and decision-making.

What is your team’s tolerance for uncertainty? Are they being over-confident about the future?

If you want to learn more about 2050 Leadership or want to discuss what support your commercial leadership team needs, you can get in touch with Uspire’s Head of Commercial Leadership, Amanda Downs by emailing


Dr. David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review ( ). He is also acknowledged to be one of the world’s leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience.

David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. 

He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes for clients like Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman, and the Yemen.

In 2010 he developed the world’s first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model, which is the subject of his next book.

He is also the author of The Ambiguity Advantage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian.


Innes, S. I., Leboeuf-Yde, C., & Walker, B. F. (2017). The relationship between intolerance of uncertainty in chiropractic students and their treatment intervention choices. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 25(1), 20.

Secondary references

Allison, J. J., Kiefe, C. I., Cook, E. F., Gerrity, M. S., Orav, E. J., & Centor, R. (1998). The association of physician attitudes about uncertainty and risk taking with resource use in a Medicare HMO. Medical Decision Making, 18(3), 320-329.

Boswell, J. F., ThompsonHollands, J., Farchione, T. J., & Barlow, D. H. (2013). Intolerance of uncertainty: A common factor in the treatment of emotional disorders. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(6), 630-645.

Fourtounas, A., & Thomas, S. J. (2016). Cognitive factors predicting checking, procrastination and other maladaptive behaviours: Prospective versus Inhibitory Intolerance of Uncertainty. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 9, 30-35.

Ghosh, A. K. (2004). On the challenges of using evidence-based information: the role of clinical uncertainty. Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, 144(2), 60-64.

Shihata S, et al. Intolerance of uncertainty in emotional disorders: What uncertainties remain? J Anxiety Disord. 2016;41:115–24.

Thibodeau, M. A., Carleton, R. N., Gómez-Pérez, L., & Asmundson, G. J. (2013). “What if I make a mistake?”: intolerance of uncertainty is associated with poor behavioral performance. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 201(9), 760-766.

Wild A, et al. Diminished physiological flexibility is associated with intolerance of uncertainty during affective decision making in adolescence. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. 2014;5(4):503–13.