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The Uncertainty Principle

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I was thinking of starting this column on how to deal with uncertainty with a line like “We live in uncertain times,” but it occurred to me that we’ve always lived in uncertain times. So did our parents and grandparents. In fact, the times have been uncertain for most of human existence. Yet we’re always seeking certainty–good, bad, or indifferent.

Recent research, as reported November 22 by Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times, indicates that for mildly neurotic people (and who doesn’t fall into that category?), even bad news is less stressful than uncertainty. As a high-anxiety type, I definitely subscribe to the corollary that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

With all the economic, financial, and global turmoil right now, uncertainty is sure to be rife among your clients. If you’re laboring to cope with this stress in them, and in yourself and your co-workers, read on for some possible answers.

Q: A young planner I hired a couple of years ago was fine at delivering our firm’s “stay the course” message as the economy began to turn sour. But now, the collapse of the financial markets, investment banks, etc. have severely rattled him. He tells me he can’t in good conscience tell clients that everything will be okay in the long run. I’m a little calmer because I’ve been through more, but I don’t know how to counsel him. Should I relegate him to the back office for the time being, or is there some way to help him regain his confidence with clients?

A: Dick Vodra, the noted planner and first vice president of Spire Investment Partners in McLean, Virginia (and a close friend), has been telling his worried clients, “There are two possibilities. Either it’s the end of the world, in which case nothing will help; or it isn’t.” He operates on the probability that it isn’t, and that’s a situation he can do something about.

The future of our economy is definitely uncertain, and no one knows whether your planner’s gloomy picture or your own will be closer to the eventual reality. So although your experience will be of some help in dealing with this, remember that all of us are trying to navigate a new landscape filled with many question marks.

Before you decide whether or not to quarantine this shook-up employee, I’d take him aside (probably more than once) and explore his fears and doubts with him. After listening carefully and compassionately, share your own emotional and intellectual journey with him. Try to help rekindle his enthusiasm for aspects of his job that still give him satisfaction and meaning. Remind him that advisors have always had to deal with uncertainty, and that your (and his) job is still to help clients prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

If you find that he is still panicky and pessimistic after this conversation, then (and only then) you might consider giving him some behind-the-scenes work to keep his mood from discouraging your clients. But ideally, these discussions will lead to a sorting out of what the two of you do and don’t know, and to your planner’s recommitment to the work he used to enjoy. You and he can then work out how to proceed amid market factors that no one can predict or control.

Q: Everything I used to believe about portfolio construction, risk assessment, and financial safety has proved untrue. I feel like I’m stranded in the wilderness without a compass. Is there anything I can do to regain my bearings? If not, how can I learn to live with this uncertainty?

A: Your angst is very understandable, and I feel tremendous empathy for you. Many other advisors are in the same boat. In fact, my first suggestion is to reach out to colleagues (especially those who are not in the throes of panic and despair) and brainstorm with them about what to do in the current climate.

When it comes to your clients, I think it’s important not to demand fortune-telling abilities of yourself. Instead, partner with each client to determine the best course of action. Beginning with a review of their goals and their dreams and see what changes you can recommend in good conscience. Unless you have an elderly heart patient on your roster who is sleepless with anguish over his shrinking portfolio, most of your clients probably need reassurance to stay the course. (In the case of the very real gentleman with the weak heart, the advisor did sanction moving the money into cash so his client could sleep at night. Good health is more important than hanging on for a market turnaround.)

Finally, I would recommend examining your own past record of getting through doubtful or challenging situations. What signs of stress appeared when you felt overtaxed? How did you cope? What strategies enabled you to move from a primitive survival mode to a rational, adult thriving mode? What brought you hope and healing: a loving family, music, nature, hobbies? Can you apply them now?

Ask yourself, too, if there are any aspects of today’s uncertain situation that you can be sure of. Once you feel more confident of your footing, I wager you’ll be able to move forward without feeling you absolutely must know the future right now.

Q: I recently had to let go almost a quarter of the advisors and even more of the support staff at my firm. This layoff has left the “survivors” feeling shell-shocked and depressed. At a time when clients really need us to be upbeat, what can I do to boost my staff’s morale?

A: I’m glad you asked this question. So many managers feel that once the door has closed on laid-off employees, work should just resume as usual.

The truth is that layoffs make everyone feel unsafe (“What if it’s me next time?”), suspicious (“Can I trust my boss to support me?”), sad (“My friends are gone.”), and sometimes angry (“What a slap in the face! They worked so hard”). There’s no way “business as usual” can continue unless you address these emotions first.

I think you ought to meet with each of your employees one on one. Explain why the layoffs were needed and how difficult they were, and reassure each person (to the extent that you can) about the safety of his or her own job. Listen to each employee’s feelings, and ask if there is anything you can do to help restore their positive attitude toward work.

If morale is still low after these individual conversations, you might want to hold one or more staff meetings to provide closure for the mourning process and recommit to the future. This may sound very involved; but when you make the time to listen to your employees, to appreciate their talents and contributions, and to reassure them that they needn’t live in fear of losing their job tomorrow, it will be easier for them to regain their balance along with a modicum of hope and energy for the future.

Q: My conservative client insists that if the Democrats deliver on their campaign promises of universal health care, corporate bailouts, taxpayer rebates, and easier unionization, America will go to hell in a handbasket. He’s asked me to transfer all his money into investments denominated in Australian dollars. I think he’s panicking, but I can’t get him to think straight. What should I do?

A: Is it difficult for you to separate political bias from financial impartiality, or do you think you can truly listen to this client patiently and empathetically? If your views make you unsympathetic to his attitude, perhaps you can refer him to someone in your office who shares his political outlook. Or you might partner with this more conservative advisor in listening to and counseling your client.

The ideal scenario would be to meet this upset man where he is emotionally. Give him ample time and space to vent his fears and concerns. Listen compassionately, so that when he feels he has been fully heard, he will be willing to listen to your more balanced advice about the future. If you can, you might tell him of similar situations where a decision made in the heat of intense emotion proved risky and expensive.

After listening to him and advising him (either on your own or with a more politically in sync planner), you may find his insistence on Australian currency isn’t dented at all. In that case, you’ll have to go along with his wishes –documenting your reservations in writing, of course. There may be solace in the thought that at this time of relative uncertainty, at least one of you is sure of the right thing to do.

Q: I’m 58, and have enough years in this business to feel that I should be slowing down and relaxing more. Instead, I seem to be working harder and longer, and worrying more about my financial security and my clients’ outlook. This uncertainty has been keeping me awake at night, and it’s beginning to affect my confidence as a planner. What can I do about it?

A: First of all, I’d suggest a simple exercise aimed at helping you let go of your worries and anxieties. At what time of day do you worry most? At this appointed hour, take some time to write down a list of your concerns, including what you would or could do if the worst-case scenario happened. Then, put the list aside.

To calm your nerves, you might also post a soothing sentence where you can see it easily. This could be something like “You have the tools you need to handle all of life’s challenges,” or “You are not alone and all will be well.” Create your own positive affirmation to help you reconnect with a more positive state of mind.

There are many other things you can do to improve your sleep. Some people swear by warm baths, warm milk, or supplements like valerian or melatonin, while others find they need a prescription sleeping aid. Simply going to bed and getting up at the same time regularly can help. But the best solution is to identify the sources of your worry and come up with ways to resolve them, perhaps with the aid of friends or a counselor. When you reduce your anxiety, I think you’ll find you not only sleep better, but wake up to meet the new day with more enthusiasm.

In uncertain times, we would all do well to take a stress inventory. Consider asking friends, colleagues, and loved ones how you act when stressed; then determine what you need to do to move from this stress mode to your more balanced thriving mode. Maybe the answer is getting more sleep, compiling a daily gratitude list, summarizing which concerns you can control and which ones you can’t (and letting go of the latter), spending time with people you love, volunteering, or finding another meaningful way to give back.

Whatever it takes, try to shore up your reserves to weather the storms that roar through a world wracked with uncertainty. The more carefully and patiently you listen to your clients’ fears and concerns, the sooner they’ll be ready to brainstorm with you about stances and actions that will make them more confident about the future.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Client Connection: How Advisors Can Build Bridges That Last, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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