Balancing Uncertainty: Realistic Optimism and Big-Picture Focus

Balancing Uncertainty: Realistic Optimism and Big-Picture Focus

Heidi Grant, a social psychologist, and Tal Goldhamer, the Chief Learning Officer for EY Americas, wrote a great piece in Harvard Business Review, addressing the devastating effects of high levels of uncertainty on individuals and what this means for the workplace.

You’re advised to take notice of the entire article, but we would like to highlight a few phrases:

“To stay motivated as we encounter unprecedented levels of uncertainty in every aspect of our lives, we should understand that the human brain was not built for this.”

The authors explain that having been hunter-gatherers, life was pretty predictable and, therefore, our brain evolved to be ‘remarkably good at recognizing patterns and building habits’.

“When things become less predictable — and therefore less controllable — we experience an intense state of threat.”

You may know that being in a state of threat often leads to fight, freeze, or flight responses.

“You may not know that it also decreases motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behavior, self-control, sense of purpose and meaning, and overall well-being. In addition, threats significantly impair your working memory: You can’t hold as many ideas to solve problems, nor can you pull as much information from your long-term memory when needed. Threats of uncertainty make us less capable because dealing with them is not something our brains evolved to do.”

Knowing this helps us to understand our behavior and that of others better. While perceiving high levels of uncertainty can be overwhelming, the trick is to turn it into something manageable. To control the situation and reduce the level of fear and anxiety, the authors offer three strategies:

  1. Set expectations with realistic optimism. Realistic optimism is simple but powerful: Believe that everything will work out just fine while accepting that getting there might not be easy ─ when you think things will come quickly, you’re rarely prepared for when they don’t.
  2. Lift to bigger-picture thinking. The level of construal (abstraction/concreteness) we use to think about our actions turns out to have a significant impact on our behavior. When we think about the more significant meaning or purpose that our actions serve (high-level construal), we’re more inspired and motivated, which boosts self-esteem and well-being.
  3. Embrace candor. Working through so much change and dealing with unexpected setbacks means we need to constantly and honestly communicate with one another to co-create the proper new norms and habits. We aren’t just talking about giving helpful performance feedback — we’re talking about the everyday conversations about what’s working and what isn’t needed as we figure out what a new everyday needs to be.

The authors end the article: 

“Thriving through change and uncertainty is not easy. However, armed with the right strategies to help yourself and others, we’re confident that (realistic) optimism is indeed warranted. Remember what matters most, keep honest communication flowing, and know it will improve.”

When we mention the importance of having a shared vision and using a Customer Roundtable to openly and freely speak about the things that matter and rally toward a common goal, these are all actual implementations of the strategies described by the authors.


  • Edwin Korver

    Edwin Korver is a polymath celebrated for his mastery of systems thinking and integral philosophy, particularly in intricate business transformations. His company, CROSS-SILO, embodies his unwavering belief in the interdependence of stakeholders and the pivotal role of value creation in fostering growth, complemented by the power of storytelling to convey that value. Edwin pioneered the RoundMap®, an all-encompassing business framework. He envisions a future where business harmonizes profit with compassion, common sense, and EQuitability, a vision he explores further in his forthcoming book, "Leading from the Whole."

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