We’re creatures of habit, highly aversive of uncertainty

We’re creatures of habit, highly aversive of uncertainty

Heid Grant, a social psychologist, and Tal Goldhamer, the Chief Learning Officer for EY Americas, wrote a great piece on 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 simply 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 a strong 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 leads to decreases in motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behavior, self-control, sense of purpose and meaning, and overall well-being. In addition, threat creates significant impairments in your working memory: You can’t hold as many ideas in your mind to solve problems, nor can you pull as much information from your long-term memory when you need it. Threats of uncertainty literally make us less capable, because dealing with them is just not something our brains evolved to do.

Knowing this helps us to better understand our behavior and that of others. While perceiving high levels of uncertainty can be an overwhelming sensation, 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. The concept of realistic optimism is a simple but powerful one: Believe that everything is going to work out just fine while accepting that getting there might not be easy ─ when you think things will come easily, 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 larger meaning or purpose that our actions serve (high-level construal), we’re more inspired and motivated and feel greater boosts to self-esteem and well-being.
  3. Embrace candor. Working through so much change and dealing with unexpected setbacks means we need to be constantly and honestly communicating with one another to co-create the right new norms and habits. We aren’t just talking about giving useful performance feedback — we’re talking about the everyday conversations about what’s working and what isn’t that are needed as we figure out what a new normal needs to be.

The authors end the article with: “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 that in the end, it will be better.”

When we speak about the importance of having and sharing a corporate vision, the use of the Customer Roundtable to openly and freely speak about the things that are of concern, or the rallying toward a goal, these are all actual implementations of the strategies described by the authors.

How to deal with uncertainty?

Heffernan: Dare to Disagree

Bypassing the Pecking Order


  • 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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