Overcoming Uncertainty. How Psychology Can Help.
Whether you were shocked, delighted, devastated or relieved to hear the result on Brexit, the fact remains that for many businesses we’re now stepping into previously uncharted territory. The only certainty seems to be uncertainty itself.
This website is loaded with freely available materials to help you through times of uncertainty, from mindset to neuroplasticity we’ll be sharing some of the most relevant support via our Thought Leadership updates as the situation unfolds over the next few weeks and months.
We’ve also created a new tag called ‘Referendum‘ to help you search for supporting articles more easily.
As many of our clients are facing difficult conversations with their people we explore these early reactions of uncertainty and unease:
- How is my company affected by the news?
- Could budget cuts and fears over economic uncertainty lead to me not having a job?
- Will the budgets be cut from my key projects leading me back to square one on a lot of hard work?
- How are things going to change in my job?
- What does all this really mean for me, my job, my team?
These are just some of the questions swimming around the minds of people and in conversations around the workplace. Yet as with any time of uncertainty and ambiguity, the fact is that nobody really knows the answers to these questions. So how do we respond? How should leaders communicate “I don’t know” or “we’ll have to wait and see”, when that response is unlikely to put people at ease – in fact it might make things worse.
We know from neuroscience research that the brain responds far better to bad news than not knowing. We would rather know what difficult things lie ahead than be in a time of uncertainty; we simply crave certainty. This means that messages about seeing how things go, or needing to wait for reports back from certain teams or results, can be really unhelpful.
A better option is to frequently and to the point that it feels like over-communication, clarify what you know, what you don’t know and when you will update people again. You can reinforce this with reminders on what will stay the same and what will change. The key reason for this over-communication of simple messages is the threat of an unhelpful series of events, which can build in times of uncertainty:
- The brain craves certainty and will find it – so if you don’t tell people what is certain, their brains will choose things that seem likely or possibly assume the worst
- That will start the rumour mill, so if you’re not communicating regularly or clearly enough, the rumours will fill in the gaps for you
- People assuming the worst and worrying about their job security creates a threat response in the brain, which can lead to a variety of unhelpful behaviours
- Without clarification on what will stay the same, people may also jump to conclusions about how much will change – possibly creating a further threat response
- You’re likely to see more defensive behaviour, people wanting to keep their heads down, or worse – people becoming negative and cynical about their work
- And through all of this, because of the brain’s focus on the threat situation – people will not be doing their best thinking or their best work
Once a week – perhaps as part of the usual company update or results check-in conference calls, update your people on how things are progressing. When you think about it, you might notice that we often repeat messages many times, for example clarifying the goals or targets for the month or year. This is very helpful as the classic saying “what gets measured gets done” also applies to “what gets talked about gets heard.”
When we talk consistently about targets and goals, people have certainty; they know what is expected. In the same way when we talk about uncertainty or not knowing what will happen in future, the mind is filled with doubt and concern. You can see it in the media already, where a strong narrative is that nobody really knows what will happen next – causing fear and unrest in the economy.
Here’s a sample communication script from one of our client’s support functions teams, which you could adapt for your specific business, level and situation.
What we know, whilst also emphasising what will stay the same
- The Brexit news has caused a shock and some concern in the economy. You will have heard in the news that the pound and FTSE have taken a big knock, but this is normal with any big change in politics and government
- We know that our customers are continuing to spend as normal based on the past few days’ results
- We know that our partners and suppliers around the globe are concerned about possible changes to our trade agreements, but because we all know it will be some time before anything actually changes on that front, everything continues as normal
- As we’ve talked about many times before, our major focus for the next three years is to improve our platforms to enable smoother operations for our customers and our internal reporting, whilst also growing our B2B services. This has not changed, we will continue to invest and grow in these areas
Notice the emphasis on clarifying what it might be easy to assume is obvious. Saying our results are the same when surely people can see it in the data might seem pointless but we need to keep positive messages front and centre to give our people (and their brains in particular) reassurance and clarity.
What we don’t know, clarifying what is known within this, what that means to people now, when we might know and when updates will come from the business
- Because of the uncertainty in our political structure, we don’t know who will be in charge of major governmental projects or how and when these might go ahead. We suspect some or all of these projects might be put on hold and if so we won’t know how long for. We therefore want to complete our current research phases on three of those projects, then pause until we know more
- Our team’s role on these projects is to support the research and when that is complete, we still have plenty of work to do on the platform improvement projects, so there will be no job role changes or cuts to this team
- One of the project teams in department X will no longer have work due to the government budget for the research going on hold. This team has been told and is going through a consultation process to see if we can find them work on other projects. We will know by the end of July what is happening here and will update you on progress every week
- We know that within six months there will be a budget update from each of our government teams, so we can assess then what happens next
- In the meantime we will update you every week on the progress with all of this, clarifying what stays the same and what, if anything, will be changing
Notice wherever there is a comment about something we don’t know, or something changing, there is a supporting comment on what’s next and dates to clarify things.
The overall message with all of this is to over-communicate. Clarify what stays the same, talk about what is unknown and how and when you might have answers.
A classic fault with our brains is to assume everyone is thinking in the same way, which causes major issues through times of change and ambiguity. Business leaders may have had the privilege of new insight, market research or an in-depth study of the political and economic news; whereas the rest of the company may be unsure what’s happening.
By sharing information, the insight used to make decisions and the thinking behind what is going on, business leaders empower their people to think for themselves, engage with the uncertainty and see a way through it. That’s your people working at their best.