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The fear of the unknown…

We are living in uncertain times. The U.S election which is testing many of us; the continuing question about the impact Brexit will really have; the weakening of the pound and so much destruction both man-made and geological. Politically, economically and socially we will be living with uncertainty for a long time to come. Uncertainty is in and of itself, threatening because of how the brain positions and interprets it. The unrest we are facing is affecting all our businesses forcing yet more organizational change. And yet, 75% of business change fails to meet its original goals and more often than not leaves behind an aftermath of demotivation and disengagement. One key reason for this is how the brain responds to change which is by default uncertainty.

We crave a sense of certainty and put energy into finding control to mitigate ambiguity. Whilst the tolerance levels of uncertainty and ambiguity will differ with individuals, the brain feels safety when it gets what’s going on and can predict what happens next. Where it is unable to pattern match an event our brain will flag up warning signals preparing us for what could be a perilous situation. After all it’s better to fear the unknown, act now and ask questions later than to walk blindly into potential danger. It is of course why the associated cliché is true. When we are in this state of readiness to meet a possible foe our attention is honed on the threat and our capacity to think broadly is depleted. We put up resistance to change, hoping instead to maintain status quo which effectively puts up human roadblocks that slow and sometimes stop the change process.

What’s the science bit behind this? Our brain continually pattern matches the information it receives from the world with what it has already stored and filed from your experiences to decide what to do. Once it has made a match it guides us to act accordingly to the situation. Imagine a filing cabinet in your head in which all of ‘you’ is stored – your memories, your experiences, everything that has happened to you. The filing system is ordered by association and sub-divided by the categories ‘safe’ or ‘threat’. The emotion experienced with the event is the determinant for the order and category, the chemical librarian if you like. So for someone who was stung badly by a bee as a child, bees will be stored high in the threat category. In the same category because of association, certain places will be filed next to bees – maybe lavender because that’s where you were when you got stung. The association of lavender with bees gives
the brain a frame for avoidance, triggering our threat response even if there are no bees to be seen.

This ‘match–predict-act’ system from an evolutionary and survival viewpoint this carries advantage. The sub-conscious filing system provides the means for very fast analysis and action to keep you on the planet a bit longer, moving you away from perceived danger even before you are consciously aware of it. Uncertainty however, is like a torn map. Without the missing piece the whole landscape cannot completed and the next steps cannot be calculated. In the absence of information we seek to fill in the gaps to make sense of the ambiguity and uncertainty of what is and what’s next. It’s why during change the gossip chain strengthens as individuals seek understanding and evidence for their own interpretation of what it all means. This is termed ‘information seeking behaviour’ – what’s happening now? what’s next?, what does it mean for me? Even if the information turns out to be wrong at the time it provides the brain with immediate comfort because it’s been able to create a temporary certainty.

Change is part of the fabric of life and is continuous in our workplaces. The capability to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity is a skill that can be learnt and one that has a direct performance impact. Its perhaps no surprise then that CEO’s with higher tolerance levels of ambiguity are related to firms with higher financial and market performance. So as we continue to deal with change at work and the uncertainty across the planet, providing tools and knowledge to support individuals to develop a stronger tolerance of uncertainty is crucial for performance and wellbeing.

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